As the organization prepares for its 30th annual conference, which will be held Aug. 25-28 at the Gaylord National Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., Editor-in-Chief Sandy Smith had a question and answer session with VPPPA board members Bill Harkins, Richard McConnell, Stacy Thursby Mike Guillory and Tony Stoner.
What drew you and your company to participate in VPP and VPPPA? What benefits do you receive from participation, both for you professionally and for your company?
Bill Harkins, director-at-large, turnaround manager, Chevron Phillips Chemical Co.: Personally, what drew me to VPP is that it is people-focused. One of the main elements of VPP is employee involvement and management commitment, but that label only scratches the surface. Being a part of the network of VPP sites, something VPPPA helps facilitate, means that I have access to the best practices, expertise and experience of thousands of other safety and health professionals.
Richard McConnell, director from a VPP construction/contractor site, senior project manager, Austin Industrial at LyondellBasell: A unique experience I’ve had with VPP and the association is the emphasis on a partnership with OSHA, rather than an adversarial relationship. The program is centered on workers and companies’ desire to provide the safest possible workplace and striving for that goal with help from OSHA.
Stacy Thursby, director from a DOE-VPP site, safety and health program manager, URS Professional Solutions: Employees are empowered to make changes, suggestions and improvements across all aspects of safety and health when companies participate in VPP. This allows for a free flow of information between employees and management, creating an atmosphere of trust and collaboration. Professionally, the networking and contacts made through the sharing of information, which is an integral part of VPP, has helped my career advance to a management position.
Mike Guillory, vice chairperson, The Brock Group: VPP companies are proactive. Through a focus on continual improvement, we are able to employ cutting-edge technology, processes and insights from our peers. Normally, they would be competitors of ours, but safety doesn’t have brand loyalty. Granted, we certainly use our status as a VPP site as a marketing advantage to attract new employees.
Tony Stoner, secretary, Integrity Windows and Doors: Initially, we were interested in VPP as a way to better protect our employees and set ourselves apart from other local employers.
What do you think is the greatest benefit offered to members of VPPPA? What have you personally gained from participation in the organization?
Tony Stoner: Without a doubt, it is the tremendous network of passionate, skilled and enthusiastic safety practitioners. You can learn just as much from the men and women on the shop floor as you can from a company president. VPP and VPPPA help bridge those traditional ranks with the common goal of safety.
Mike Guillory: The shared knowledge and experience of all of our members. I have met and worked with some of the best “safety minds” in the country through VPPPA.
Richard McConnell: I have built close working relationships and friendships with people from numerous other companies. VPPPA is great at bringing people together who share a common purpose.
Stacy Thursby: The sheer scope and diversity of the innovative practices and programs our members share is truly impressive. Through my work with the association, I have gained recognition as a safety and health expert, both regionally and nationally.
To what are you most looking forward in terms of the conference? What speakers/sessions would you like to highlight?
Stacy Thursby: The awards ceremony and recognition of the groundbreaking programs and dedicated outreach of our members is always high on my list. The sessions that are presented by management and hourly personnel together exemplify the teamwork VPP creates.
Richard McConnell: Each year I look forward to the sense of accomplishment when everything comes together and all of our careful planning pays off when our members have a wonderful time learning and expanding their network.
Bill Harkins: Our keynote speakers are a great source of motivation. They help focus everyone on making the most of their time at the conference and sharing what they’ve learned with their worksite. The selection of workshops is so diverse, I enjoy learning about an entirely different type of work and the hazards that site or industry faces. I then can try to apply the lessons they’ve learned to my own location.
Tony Stoner: It’s not anything new, but employers worry about cost. However, we believe it is a false choice between safety and savings. VPPPA’s network is all about learning from each other’s mistakes and successes. If there is a faster, cheaper and, of course, safer way of doing something, then our members want to share it. Through VPP, sites often see gains in productivity outside of the direct benefits associated with a healthier workforce.
Mike Guillory: Sometimes a site wants to improve their safety and health programs, but they don’t know where to start. If they are interested in VPP, that can be a particularly daunting prospect on its own. VPPPA offers a mentoring program for those sites, to help them reach their goals and, if they so choose, apply for VPP approval.
Bill Harkins: One of the biggest challenges is going to be the aging of the workforce. This is going to become a factor in the safety and health sector in particular because of the need to encourage a new generation of safety and health leaders before the old guard retires.
Part of what makes VPP strong is its adaptability. In this case, that means that many of our sites already are developing new processes and procedures to support an older workforce. The winter issue of our quarterly magazine, The Leader, will focus on aging.
What are some of the challenges facing VPPPA? What kind of feedback, if any, have you received from OSHA under OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels? He doesn't seem as amenable to the program as former OSHA Administrator John Henshaw was, for example.
Mike Guillory: The association has had some of the common challenges faced by organizations during the recession, but we have fared much better than some of our peers. We have done quite a lot of work towards ensuring that safety is a cornerstone of workplaces across the country and not something to be abandoned when times are tough.
This attitude aligns with OSHA well. We’ve been looking for opportunities to expand our cooperation with the administration. The extended use of special government employees (SGE), professionals from VPP sites that assist OSHA at their company’s expense, is something we continue to look at together.
Richard McConnell: We’ve been working to relay our members’ concerns to OSHA. The government sequester and shutdown created a backlog of VPP re-approvals, and that is something we’ve been in constant contact with the administration about. At the end of the day, OSHA values the program because VPP sites often serve, not only as positive examples, but also as the innovators in the industry.
Stacy Thursby: Dr. Michaels is definitely a supporter of VPP. He helped to set up the Department of Energy’s program during his time there. We don’t always agree on the best way to accomplish it, but we have the same goal of making workplaces safer.
At a Senate hearing, he shared of VPP sites, “They are true believers, they are doing this not because OSHA recognizes them, though they are happy for our recognition. They know that they are a better, more productive, more profitable employer by [pursuing VPP].”