House Hearing Praises OSHA's VPP, Stresses Need for Program Integrity

In a June 28 House hearing surrounding OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), witnesses largely praised the program's ability to help reduce injuries and illnesses, improve safety culture and cut costs for employers – but they also stressed the importance of oversight, accountability and program integrity.

VPP recognizes employers who go above and beyond federal standards in order to improve health and safety in their workplaces. In exchange for passing a rigorous application process and maintaining low injury and illness rates, participating VPP sites are exempt from OSHA inspections.

In his opening statements at the House Education and Workforce Committee's Subcommittee on Workforce Protections hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Tim Walberg, R-Mich., praised VPP's benefits but added "VPP is not without its weaknesses" and referenced the 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that criticized OSHA's oversight of the program. As Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., expressed during the hearing, "There must be better OSHA oversight so that those who do not belong in VPP are removed."

Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, who explained that the agency has since worked to address many of the concerns in GAO's report, said OSHA must focus on the integrity and quality of VPP.

"We do not want a few bad apples to spoil the bunch," Barab said.

OSHA Seeks Balance

R. Davis, Layne, executive director of the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants' Association (VPPA), testified that VPP can prompt a culture change within participating sites, can reduce injuries and illnesses and help employees feel more valued and more likely to look out for the well-being of their peers. Participating companies also must demonstrate that they are working to improve their safety programs and results, which "assures VPP sites can address hazards that are new or emerging to the workplace," he said.

Layne did express disappointment that OSHA's FY 2013 budget request, which included an overall increase in funds for the agency but a decrease in OSHA compliance assistance, including VPP. Part of OSHA's challenge in managing VPP lies in the program's rapid growth – the number of VPP sites doubled after 2003, according to Barab – and making use of the agency's resources to strike a balance in its various enforcement and compliance efforts.

"OSHA is committed to VPP as well as our other cooperative programs, but we need to make difficult decisions to allocate limited resources," explained Barab during the hearing. "We have, over the last several years, increased our enforcement presence. We need to have a balanced program. Our program is not balanced, especially in whistleblower [protections]. Workers need to be the eyes and ears of OSHA, otherwise it won't work."

Documenting VPP's Benefits

David Levine, a professor of the Haas School of Business at the University of California – Berkeley, co-authored a recent study that found OSHA inspections reduce occupational injuries and their associated costs without negatively impacting company performance or profits.

"The bottom line is the inspections we studied did what they were supposed to do," Levine said. "They reduced the number of injuries by 9 percent … and reduced the cost of those injuries [in terms of workers' compensation costs] by 26 percent."

Based on Liberty Mutual estimates, Levine added, it appears each safety inspection is worth between $98,000-107,000 to an employer over 5 years. Altogether, safety inspections may save employers billions of dollars.

What VPP lacks, Levine suggested, is what his study offered OSHA inspections: the "rigorous evidence" that proves the worth of the program.

"VPP Saves Lives"

Mike Lee, vice president and general manager of Nucor Steel Decatur, testified that a safer workplace means healthier employees and better morale. Nucor Steel has 20 VPP sites and is the nation's largest steel producer.

"VPP is not top-down or bottom up approach, it's a partnership," Lee said, which means employees must be trusted and empowered to take responsibility for safety, and management must actively participate in the company's safety efforts. And it's a system that Lee believes in. "VPP saves lives and Newcore Corp. is proud to be a part of it," he said.

"We've been a participant in the OSHA VPP program for nearly 20 years," added Rob Henson, a process technician at the chemical refiner LydondellBassell, who also testified at the hearing. "Safety is truly a No. 1 priority at my facility … Participating in the VPP program has allowed our safety and health programs to be driven by our employees."

Voluntary Enforcement: Not Enough?

According to the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen, however, voluntary enforcement is not enough. In a statement issued on June 28, the organization argued against allowing industries to regulate themselves, and added that the lawmakers in the House hearing are "misguided" if they believe voluntary enforcement of occupational safety is enough to keep workers safe.

"While Public Citizen applauds the willingness of some employers to step up and go above and beyond the language of the required federal statue to protect their employees, scheduled OSHA inspections remain necessary," said Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate for Public Citizen's Congress Watch division.

After an employer applies to OSHA to qualify to be in a VPP, OSHA performs a rigorous inspection. If the employer is granted VPP status, the designation is good for 3-5 years. Lisa Gilbert, acting director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division, called enforcement and inspections "absolutely necessary to deter employers who may neglect workplace safety and health."

"The House Education and Workforce Committee should consider the need for federal oversight before moving to promote safe workplaces through voluntary programs alone," Wrightson concluded.

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