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VPP Eyes Growth in the States

Agency watchers know that growing the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) is one of OSHA Administrator John Henshaw's top priorities. What is not as well recognized is that an enormous component of the program's future growth potential lies outside of federal OSHA's direct control.

At the end of fiscal year 2003 less than 30 percent of OSHA's approximately 1000 VPP sites were in state plan states, even though these states account for roughly 50 percent of the nation's worksites. In order to meet Henshaw's ambitious goal of increasing the program to 6000 sites, it is clear that federal OSHA will have to figure out a way to help state plans increase the number of VPP facilities. Given the financial situation of most cash-strapped states, this could be a real challenge.

Cathy Oliver, OSHA's director of the office partnerships and recognition, explained that the relatively young age of many state VPPs is the biggest reason they are lagging behind the federal VPP.

"Federal VPP started in 1982, whereas 10 state programs have adopted VPP only since 1998," Oliver explained. "Some of them aren't as far along as we are." In addition, the states tend to have smaller worksites, while VPP is generally aimed at larger companies. While half of the nation's worksites are in state plan states, they account for only 40 percent of all employees, according to Oliver.

What is OSHA doing to help VPP grow at the state level? "We share all of our policies and procedures, training courses, and we have regular joint meetings with the states to exchange information about our program," said Oliver.

OSHA's budget has been growing very slowly in recent years, and Oliver was unable to say whether Washington is providing any more money to help states fund the ambitious growth in VPP federal OSHA wants.

"Part of what we do in cooperative programs is try to leverage as much as possible," said Oliver, citing two examples.

The Voluntary Protection Program Participants' Association holds conferences in state plan states, and this association can train employers to apply without using scarce government resources.

"We also have the special government employees (SGE) program, which means once a site is in VPP there are employees who go through our training program and can become resources for VPP." Oliver explained that at the federal level OSHA has cut staffing costs for VPP site visits because the agency now will send two volunteer SGEs along with two OSHA employees to do the job.

Why are companies prepared to pay their employees to do site visits for OSHA? "They have to do audits of these worksites, and they learn our techniques," answered Oliver, "and finally they get to see someone else's safety and health program.

The SGE program has been "a tremendous success," she said. It is growing steadily, and now has about 300 members.

"Since companies keep giving us SGEs year after year," commented Oliver, "they must be getting something from it, or they wouldn't spend those valuable resources."

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