GAO Report Praises OSHA's Voluntary Programs

A new report by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) lauds four of OSHA's voluntary compliance programs, but cautions that the agency should not expand them because OSHA lacks adequate data to assess their effectiveness.

GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, recommends that the Department of Labor (DOL) direct OSHA to find cost-effective ways of evaluating the programs and establish a way of setting priorities among them before expanding the voluntary efforts.

In a March 8 letter commenting on the GAO report, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw said DOL generally agrees with the recommendations, but did not comment on whether expansion of voluntary programs will await better data. Even though the GAO praised OSHA's voluntary programs, Henshaw threw back at GAO the "lack of data" problem, pointing out that the report's evaluation of OSHA's programs is not definitive, because GAO's findings are based on an "extremely small sample of workplace visits and interviews."

The report, released March 30, examined four of OSHA's voluntary programs:

  • Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) that recognize worksites that exceed OSHA compliance standards;
  • State Consultation Programs, designed to help small businesses in high-hazard industries;
  • Strategic Partnership Programs, which focus on groups of workers and employers in high hazard workplaces, especially employers with multiple worksites;
  • Alliance Programs, OSHA's newest program for trade and professional organizations that want to promote safety and health through training and outreach.

GAO visited three VPP sites out of a total of 1,000, three firms that had received a consultation visit, and three employers in the partnership program.

"The most commonly cited benefit of participating in OSHA's voluntary compliance programs," according to GAO, "was the reduction in the number and rate of injuries and illnesses." A second advantage was decreased costs to employers through lower workers' compensation premiums. Workers and management also said the OSHA programs improved their relationships with each other and with the agency.

"Employers and employees at the workplaces we visited reported a shift to a safety culture in which they all take responsibility for safety, thereby contributing to improved productivity, morale, and product quality."

OSHA has been attempting to evaluate the consultation, VPP and partnership programs, although GAO noted that "assessments of each program are at a different stage of development and the approaches vary." The alliance program appears to be in the worst position with respect to assessment, as the report notes the agency has not yet developed an evaluation approach for the national program.

While the number of inspections is up slightly along with spending on enforcement programs, its share of the total OSHA budget has dropped from 63 percent in 1996 to 56 percent in 2003, according to the GAO report. During the same period voluntary programs rose from 20 to 28 percent of OSHA's budget.

Perhaps the central point of the GAO study is that OSHA has no way of rationally determining how to allocate its scarce resources between enforcement and voluntary efforts, nor among the voluntary programs.

The report states OSHA lacks a "comprehensive strategic framework that articulates how the programs fit together in accomplishing the agency's goals or how its resources should be allocated among the various programs."

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