An OSHA of Contradictions: ‘Model Workplaces’ Not Always So Safe

Staying in the club

To join VPP, companies must submit to an on-site evaluation. Unlike the usual OSHA visit where inspectors can issue citations, however, evaluators — often including employees of companies in the program — issue “90-day items,” a list of hazards to correct within 90 days. “Star” sites typically won’t face another evaluation for at least three years. Almost every member of the club — more than 95% — has “Star” status.

Once a site is approved into VPP, it is largely left to police itself. Only serious accidents, formal complaints, or referrals — when OSHA is informed of a potential hazard — will trigger a visit from an enforcement official.

Though OSHA often uses special enforcement programs to target particularly dangerous industries, VPP sites are exempt from these inspections, too. Companies must file reports on themselves with OSHA each year, but OSHA generally does little to verify them until the next evaluation in three to five years, Barab confirmed.

When a worker dies at a VPP site, OSHA officials responsible for overseeing the program have to follow up, but what happens after that is a judgment call. The agency could perform a full re-evaluation of the site’s VPP status, or it might just call the company on the phone to check in.

“A lot of VPP is kind of subjective,” said OSHA’s Barab. For a workplace to stay in the club, “we have to feel like they’re acting in good faith.”

During the past decade, these judgment calls usually tipped in favor of letting companies stay; at least 65% of sites where a worker has died remain in the program today.

Some sites have been re-approved after fatal accidents, only to experience further problems. At Weyerhaeuser’s Valliant, Okla., plant, for example, a contract worker was crushed to death in a paper machine in May 1999, but, in May 2001, OSHA re-approved the facility as a “Star” site. Less than two months later, another worker was crushed to death in a paper machine, and OSHA found the same violations for which it had cited the company after the first death. Only after this second death did OSHA remove the site from VPP in 2003.

Weyerhaeuser refused to discuss the accidents, but said in a statement: “Weyerhaeuser takes safety very seriously and supports the goals of VPP. Whenever we have a fatality we review the event and work with the appropriate safety agencies to learn how to prevent future occurrences.”

And, more recently, the agency has repeatedly reapproved Bayer MaterialScience’s Baytown, Texas, plant after serious accidents — once after a chemical spill in 2000 that led to willful and serious violations issued for what OSHA deemed a botched cleanup, then again after a 2005 explosion followed the next year by a chemical release that killed a worker. After another explosion, the company withdrew from VPP at OSHA’s request in 2007 but was readmitted the next year.

Bayer refused to discuss the accidents or its brief withdrawal from VPP, instead providing a written statement. “Achievement of ‘Star’ status came through the commitment of Bayer Baytown employees to a philosophy of continuous safety improvement,” the company wrote.

William A. Burke, OSHA’s acting regional administrator in Dallas, provided a statement to iWatch News about the Bayer plant, saying, “Each inspection and VPP review following each inspection taken independently didn’t indicate a significant deficiency in their safety and health program, but added together showed an overall weakness in the strength of the program.” But the company has fixed the problems and demonstrated “their sincerity to protect their employees,” he said.

The decisions that OSHA officials make in such cases are based on reviews of the site, but the Government Accountability Office raised serious concerns in a 2009 report about the assessments underlying these decisions. Auditors found that, in some cases, there was little documentation of what, if anything, OSHA regional offices did to ensure these VPP sites still belonged in the program. The GAO concluded that “some sites that no longer met the definition of an exemplary worksite remained in the VPP.”

Barab, acting chief of OSHA at the time of the report, responded by requiring documentation of follow-ups to serious accidents, among other steps. The effect of these changes is still unclear.

Last June, OSHA reapproved International Paper’s Vicksburg mill as a “Star” site. The decision came less than a year after the company agreed to stop fighting the citations, including one initially deemed “willful,” stemming from the fatal 2008 boiler explosion. A “willful” citation signals OSHA’s conclusion that a company either intentionally violated the law or acted with “plain indifference” to it. In International Paper’s case, the willful citation was reduced to a “serious” one.

Current agency head David Michaels signed a letter to the mill manager, calling the site “a model of excellence” and “an inspiration to us all.”

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