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

‘Cosmetic compliance’

Some critics have argued that VPP has been watered down in the rush to expand, and is too easily gamed by employers more interested in “cosmetic compliance” — looking good on paper — than keeping workers safe.

In the push to expand the program, OSHA may have undermined its effectiveness. Workplace safety regulators have changed policies to make it easier to join the club, allowing streamlined approvals for companies seeking VPP status for more than one workplace and allowing a company more latitude in how it compares its injury rate to industry peers; instead of using industry rates for the previous year, an employer can choose from one of the three previous years, whichever presents its record most favorably.

Former OSHA officials described a quota system that diverted resources from enforcement and cast doubt on the quality of some sites in the program. During VPP’s rapid growth between 2001 and 2008, the number of OSHA staffers helping companies comply with safety regulations, including oversight of the VPP program, decreased, according to agency data. But with the rapid expansion, OSHA needed more people than ever to conduct on-site evaluations.

Adam Finkel, OSHA regional administrator for many of the Rocky Mountain states from 2000 to 2003 and now on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, said that, during his time at the agency, the emphasis on expanding VPP membership sometimes came at the expense of enforcement. Finkel, who won a settlement from OSHA after blowing the whistle on exposure of inspectors to a toxic metal, recalled the pressure to increase the number of VPP worksites: “It was always, ‘How many people are you putting on this? How many new sites have you got?’ ”

Former OSHA official Martin, who was a compliance assistance specialist in one of the agency’s Pennsylvania offices until earlier this year, also recalled pressure to move quickly. “During that era, there were some that were clearly rushed through,” he said.

Haste may have had consequences. A former OSHA official asserted in a formal complaint with the Labor Department’s inspector general in 2009 that evaluators missed “glaring violations” that led to a serious accident, then took steps “to cover up the botched VPP evaluation.”

The complaint stemmed from a June 2008 evaluation of a Petrolia, Pa., plant owned by Indspec Chemical Corp., a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum Corp. Impressed, evaluators recommended “Star” status. In September, the regional administrator signed off, noting “the overall safety and health program management system at this site is excellent.”

One month later, a wall of white smoke billowed from the plant’s “Acid House” and into nearby buildings. Workers coughed and struggled to breathe as they fled the fumes, according to their statements included in a set of documents obtained by iWatch News.

The cloud was oleum, also known as fuming sulfuric acid. OSHA eventually determined that the company’s botched response led to a large and uncontrolled release, threatening a nearby community, which had to be evacuated.

This time, OSHA didn’t praise the company. Its program for handling hazardous chemicals such as oleum, which the VPP evaluation team had saluted only a few months earlier, was incomplete and had created “a greater likelihood for the chance of a catastrophic release of toxic materials,” the agency’s inspection report concluded.

In all, the agency found 27 serious violations and issued a $121,500 fine. OSHA, which hadn’t finalized the site’s “Star” status and announced it publicly, quietly withdrew the approval, and Indspec’s aborted bid to join the VPP club has not been previously disclosed. To settle the enforcement case, the company agreed to pay $90,000 for 20 violations and to remedy the unsafe conditions, according to the settlement agreement between OSHA and the company.

OSHA’s actions “wasted government time and money and resulted [in] endangering not only plant employees, but also the residents of [the] town of Petrolia,” wrote the official, whose name was redacted on documents iWatch News obtained under a public records request. Had OSHA officials been qualified and done their jobs, the official wrote, “they could have intervened prior to the incident and possibly prevented it.” The Labor Department said in a written statement that VPP evaluation team’s review had been thorough and that the underlying cause involved an infrequent process at the plant.

Indspec declined iWatch News’  requests for comment, but in a statement the company said it may reapply for VPP status. “We understand and regret any inconvenience caused by the 11 October 2008, incident at the Indspec Petrolia plant,” the company said. “To ensure that this type of incident doesn’t happen again Indspec has made several changes in equipment and procedures.” The company added, “Indspec believes in the fundamentals of OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program.”

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