OSHA to Expand Voluntary Protection Programs without Assessing Benefits to Workers

Katie Tracy

July 21, 2017

On Monday, July 17, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) convened a public meeting to hear input from stakeholders about how the agency might grow and strengthen its Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP). Given the change in administration, the announcement was no surprise. 

Growing the VPP had also been a priority of the George W. Bush administration, during which time OSHA made plans to add thousands of new participants despite having no evidence the program improved worker health and safety. Resource constraints ultimately tempered OSHA’s expansion plans, but not before the agency had damaged the VPP and eroded its integrity. With this history in mind, I attended this week’s stakeholder meeting to urge the agency to learn from the past and reevaluate the VPP’s performance and cost-effectiveness before it moves to expand it. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) or the Department of Labor (DOL) Inspector General should also perform an independent audit to determine whether the program meets its objectives and is a worthwhile use of taxpayer dollars. 

The VPP is a cooperative program by which OSHA recognizes worksites that have comprehensive safety and health management programs in place and below-average injury rates compared to the rest of their industry. To participate in the VPP, an employer must submit an application to the agency and undergo an initial onsite evaluation. Once approved, OSHA performs a reevaluation every three to five years. In exchange for implementing these programs and maintaining below-average injury rates, OSHA exempts participants from programmed inspections (although they are still subject to complaint, referral, or incident inspections). 

OSHA established the VPP in 1982, and it remained relatively small until two decades later, when the George W. Bush administration sought to expand it to 8,000 participants. According to a 2004 GAO review of OSHA’s voluntary compliance programs, the agency not only lacked the comprehensive data needed to assess whether its voluntary compliance programs were effective, but administering the programs swallowed a large amount of OSHA’s limited resources. 

By the end of the Bush administration, the VPP had grown to more than 2,000 participants. OSHA had gone ahead with expanding this resource-intensive program without collecting or analyzing data to show it had a measurable impact on worker health and safety. In fact, when GAO reviewed the VPP program in 2009, it found that OSHA still “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.” Due to limited resources, OSHA had failed to keep up with the VPP’s growth. Several participating worksites were no longer qualified, but OSHA had not kicked them out. And OSHA faced a major backlog of VPP re-approval applications. 

During the Obama administration, OSHA focused on restoring the VPP’s integrity, rather than growing its size. (For an insider’s perspective on this, check out Former Deputy Assistant Secretary Jordan Barab’s blog here). Yet with Congress cutting OSHA’s budget year after year, the agency struggled (and failed) to get the program back on course. When the DOL Inspector General conducted a performance audit of the VPP for FY 2012, it found that not much had changed. 

Given the program’s history and continuing deficiencies, it’s alarming that OSHA is once again moving to expand the VPP. Not only does OSHA continue to lack the necessary resources to expand the program, the agency still hasn’t assessed the program’s performance to find out if it works. 

A new independent audit of the VPP by GAO or the DOL Inspector General would tell OSHA whether the program is having a positive effect on worker health and safety, having a negative effect, or having no effect at all. If the program has a negative or negligible effect, the agency should consider abandoning it or at the very least work to substantially improve it before considering an expansion. And if the VPP is achieving its intended purpose, a formal assessment may provide OSHA with much-needed support for continuing or expanding the program. Of course, before assessing the program’s performance, OSHA must develop programmatic goals and measures. Once the agency has comprehensively evaluated the VPP, it would then need to compare the results relative to its other compliance assistance and enforcement programs to determine which is most effective. 

At OSHA’s stakeholder meeting on Monday, I had a brief opportunity to call on the agency to assess the program before moving ahead. I’ll be preparing written comments to submit to the agency as well as keeping a watchful eye on the VPP and OSHA enforcement policy more broadly. OSHA should not proceed to invest taxpayer dollars into this program without GAO or the Labor Department Inspector General first performing an independent audit to ensure it yields the highest benefits for worker health and safety. 

If you’re interested in attending OSHA’s next stakeholder meeting on the VPP in New Orleans on August 28, 2017, visit OSHA’s website. You can also submit comments in writing to OSHA until September 15, 2017. 

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