Will VPP Growth Compromise Quality?

Sept. 12, 2003
The question of preserving the Voluntary Protection Program's (VPP) superb safety record while pursuing ambitious growth goals, appeared to be very much on the mind of OSHA Administrator John Henshaw when he spoke at the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants' Association (VPPPA) annual conference.

Based on interviews with attendees at the conference, held in Washington Sept. 8-11, the question of whether Henshaw's bold quantitative goals may compromise the program's quality also appears to be on the minds of VPPPA members.

In his Sept. 8 speech at the VPPA conference in Washington, DC, Henshaw outlined his new 'Three Cs' initiative, designed to help meet his objective of a tenfold increase in VPP sites:

  • Challenge would encourage companies, especially smaller organizations, that are currently below VPP standards to consider applying;
  • Corporate is designed to "streamline" the application process for sites that belong to a corporation that has demonstrated a commitment to VPP;
  • Construction would be tailored to enable construction companies to become VPP members.

During the speech, Henshaw repeatedly promised VPPPA members he would not dilute the quality of VPP. "We will hold true to the rock-solid principles that underlie the VPP program," he vowed. "You have my word on that."

Many VPPPA members said the proposals appeared to be sensible ways to foster growth in VPP. Moreover, Henshaw's 25-year career as a corporate safety and health manager at Monsanto Corp., and his participation in safety organizations like VPPPA, has earned him the trust of VPPPA members, many of whom know the OSHA administrator personally.

Nevertheless, attendees at the VPPPA conference appear to be following the Russian dictum once quoted by former president Ronald Reagan: 'trust, but verify.'

"I have a general trust for Henshaw, but I do want to see more details of the 'three C's,'" said one corporate safety executive, who declined to give his name. "Henshaw himself says the details have yet to be worked out."

Henshaw has committed no new resources thus far to the expansion project. Dan Deighton, of Eli Lilly & Company's Brazil, Ind., facility, said one of the main topics of conversation he has heard at the conference is whether OSHA has the resources to administer VPP at current levels, so rapid growth raised some questions in his mind. "A large group comes in for the on site assessment, and the interviews take a lot of man-hours if you increase the numbers tenfold, it's going to take a lot larger group," commented Deighton.

To help fill this need, Henshaw hopes to increase the numbers of volunteer special government employees from existing VPP sites.

OSHA is seeking to make it easier to enter VPP in another way that raises concerns among some VPPPA members.

OSHA has proposed easing the benchmark companies must meet to apply to the VPP program. Currently a company's injury rate must be lower than its industry average as computed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for the previous year. Under OSHA's new proposal, as long as a company's current rate is better than the worst rate for its sector over the past three years, the company could apply to VPP.

Loosening benchmark requirements will not necessarily dilute the quality of VPP, according to Bill Harkins, contract manager at the Mundy Co., a Texas construction company.

"The main issue in preserving VPP quality is the site visit and employee interviews," commented Harkins. He said the benchmark proposal is intended to help smaller companies at least qualify to apply for VPP, because even a few incidents can make the rates of a small company skyrocket.

Richard Shook, who works for a small Nevada security company, Wackenhut Services Corp., offered a simpler view about the various expansion proposals, a view he said he had heard other VPPPA members at the Washington conference express as well.

"I'm not sure why they're doing what they're doing, other than lowering the standards to let other companies in."

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