I almost didn't return the call from George Walker, senior enforcement officer for the Vermont Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration (VOSHA). He had left me a message about District 7 of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, which had just received Star status in the state's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP).
I'm not in the habit of ignoring phone calls from OSHA employees, but what I knew, and what George probably didn't know, was that the federal VPP program was about to be whacked by a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), “OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs: Improved Oversight and Controls Would Better Ensure Program Quality,” which was released on June 18.
I've been in contact with a former OSHA employee who is ready to spill the beans about a shoddy VPP inspection process that is more about numbers and achieving bonuses — at least at some offices — than it is about the quality of the workplace safety process.
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.
But at the time I spoke with George, the report had not been issued, and I didn't mention the feature I was working on for our August issue with the help of the former compliance officer. I agreed to talk to some folks in Vermont about their program. I'm glad I did.
ORIGINS OF VPP
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.
Talking to Bob McLeod, VOSHA manager, and Shauna Clifford, project manager and VPP coordinator for District 7, reminded me why VPP started out as such a great program and why it deserves a second chance with better oversight and no predetermined goals for the number of Star sites.
District 7, one of nine such districts in Vermont, has 55 employees who are responsible for summer and winter maintenance on the state's roads, safety in work zones and safe operations at their facilities. In 2005, an employee — who no longer is with District 7 — attended a conference about the VPP program and thought it would be a great opportunity for the district.
“We really had no business applying for the program,” says Clifford now. “But we were committed to it.”
Letters were sent to employees to generate interest and a VPP core team was created. Every program in the district was analyzed. A safety worksite analysis team, made up of representatives from every garage, turned into mini OSHA inspectors. Teams were established to meet and conquer safety challenges head-on.
As part of the process, the district created an “all-clear” form, which started out as a safety tool, but now has turned into a planning tool, says Clifford, and is being used by other districts in the state. The form basically walks the user through every step of a project. For example, do utilities have to be contacted? If so, which ones and why? Does the safety plan need to include traffic control, fall protection, trenching safety, confined space, hazardous chemicals or on-site tailgate talks? The form also covers environmental management, erosion control and a list of materials or equipment needed.
FROM MINIMAL TO MAGNIFICENT
When District 7 started the VPP process, the safety program “was minimal at best and borderline whether we were meeting OSHA standards,” Clifford admits. “What we have now meets OSHA standards, meets our needs and is leaps and bounds from where we were.”
Interestingly, one of the recommendations of the GAO's report was that the assistant secretary for occupational safety and health establish internal controls “that ensure consistent compliance by the regions with OSHA's VPP policies for conducting on-site reviews and monitoring injury and illness rates so that only qualified worksites participate in the program.”
According to my federal OSHA source, shortcuts were taken by at least one area office during VPP audits at some facilities. The compliance officer revealed that audits that should take days and a team of people were conducted in an afternoon by one or two people.
That's not true in Vermont, where VOSHA's McLeod reports that VPP teams consist of as many as five members — a team leader, as well as two safety specialists and possibly two health specialists — depending on the facility. The Vermont audits examine all aspects of a worksite's safety and health process, starting on a Monday and generally lasting until Thursday or Friday.
I practically can hear Clifford shudder when she recalls her VPP on-site audit. “It was a very emotional and stressful week. They really tore us apart and looked at every nook and cranny,” she says.
“We didn't feel like anything was being handed to us,” adds Tom Lewis, who works with Clifford in District 7.
That's the way it should be, says McLeod. “When we say a company is a Star, we are holding them up to all other companies and saying they have a stellar program,”he notes. “VPP companies [in Vermont] have had significant decreases in workers comp costs and injury and illness rates. It's not easy but it can be done and the rewards are huge.”
Although it's unclear at this point what will happen to VPP, District 7 in Vermont and deserving worksites all over the country have earned the right to call themselves Stars. My hope is that the GAO report does not diminish the shine of that achievement.
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