GAO: OSHA’s VPP Program Lacking in Oversight

June 25, 2009
A report released by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) takes issue with OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program, saying the agency’s internal controls are not sufficient to ensure that only qualified worksites participate in the VPP and that OSHA has not developed the proper goals or measures to assess the performance of VPP.

OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs: Improved Oversight and Controls Would Better Ensure Program Quality pointed to the lack of a policy requiring documentation in VPP files regarding follow-up actions taken in response to incidents, such as fatalities and serious injuries, at VPP sites, saying it limits the national office's ability to ensure that its regions have taken the required actions, such as reviewing sites' safety and health systems and determining whether sites should remain in the program.

OSHA established VPP in 1982 to recognize worksites with exemplary safety and health programs. The VPP program sets performance-based criteria for management commitment, employee involvement, hazard recognition and mitigation and employee training. Worksites that achieve VPP status are removed from programmed inspection lists and OSHA does not issue citations to those workplaces for standards violations that are promptly corrected, which is why it is so critical that the worksites are deserving of being included in VPP.

GAO was asked to review (1) the number and characteristics of employer worksites in the VPP and factors that have influenced growth, (2) the extent to which OSHA ensures that only qualified worksites participate in VPP and (3) the adequacy of OSHA’s efforts to monitor performance and evaluate the effectiveness of the VPP. GAO analyzed OSHA’s VPP data, reviewed a representative sample of VPP case files and interviewed agency officials.

GAO reviewed OSHA's VPP files for the 30 sites that had fatalities from January 2003 to August 2008 and found that the files contained no documentation of actions taken by the regions' VPP staff. GAO interviewed regional officials and reviewed the inspection files for these sites and found that some sites had safety and health violations related to the fatalities, including one site with seven serious violations. As a result, some sites that no longer met the definition of an exemplary worksite remained in the VPP.

In addition, GAO found that OSHA's oversight is limited “because it does not have internal controls, such as reviews by the national office, to ensure that regions consistently comply with VPP policies for monitoring sites' injury and illness rates and conducting on-site reviews.” For example, the national office has not ensured that regions follow up as required when VPP sites' injury and illness rates rise above the minimum requirements for the program, including having sites develop plans for reducing their rates.

Finally, according to GAO, OSHA has not developed goals or measures to assess the performance of the VPP, and the agency's efforts to evaluate the program's effectiveness have been inadequate. OSHA officials claimed that low injury and illness rates are effective measures of performance, but GAO found discrepancies between the rates reported by worksites annually to OSHA and the rates OSHA noted during its on-site reviews. In addition, OSHA has not assessed the impact of the VPP on sites' injury and illness rates.

OSHA said it will address problems identified in VPP in response to recommendations made in the GAO report. OSHA also has announced that it will conduct a comprehensive evaluation of VPP and its Alliance Program to determine how the agency should best allocate its resources among cooperative programs, enforcement and the agency's other activities.

Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Jordan Barab said he agrees with recommendations made in the GAO report. GAO's analysis recommended that OSHA strengthen the program's oversight activity, documentation and other aspects of program operations and impact to ensure consistency and adherence to existing OSHA policies and procedures. VPP participation encompasses more than 2,200 worksites covering more than 800,000 workers.

"We will thoroughly review the VPP and Alliance Program to determine their effectiveness as well as review the programs' roles in helping the agency promote the safety and health of America's workers," said Barab.

He noted that OSHA had not adequately addressed the findings of the GAO's 2004 report, OSHA's Voluntary Compliance Strategies Show Promising Results, But Should Be Fully Evaluated Before They Are Expanded. "The report noted that OSHA had not fully evaluated the effectiveness of its cooperative programs and was therefore 'limited in its ability to make a sound decision about how best to allocate its resources,'" said Barab. "Our evaluation of these programs in the context of OSHA's limited resources will help ensure that OSHA will be able to reprioritize these resources in the most effective manner."

To address the most recent GAO report's findings and recommendations about the VPP, OSHA will review and address problems including program management and oversight policies and procedures; documentation policy for actions taken in response to fatalities and serious injuries at VPP sites; and goals and performance measures for the VPP and internal OSHA controls that ensure consistent compliance with VPP policies by the agency's regional offices.

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