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New Legislation Focuses on OSHA’s VPP, Explosive-Dust Rule

By Roy Maurer  2/25/2013

Two bills were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives recently that, if passed, would have an impact on occupational safety and the agency that regulates it.

U.S. Reps. Tom Petri, R-Wis., and Gene Green, D-Texas, introduced bipartisan legislation Feb. 13, 2013, that would make the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) popular Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) permanent.

On Feb. 14, 2013, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., introduced a bill that would expedite OSHA’s rulemaking on combustible dust.

Both bills have been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Bill Would Codify VPP

H.R. 632 proposes to change the VPP’s status from a temporary compliance-assistance effort to a codified Labor Department program, complete with a guaranteed and distinct source of funding. Currently, the program is part of OSHA’s $70 million-plus compliance-assistance budget. The bill would bar OSHA from charging employers fees to participate in the program, something that has been proposed before.

The program, created in 1982, is a partnership between private industry and OSHA.

The VPP sets performance-based criteria for a managed safety and health system, invites employers to apply and then assesses applicants against the criteria. OSHA’s verification includes an application review and an onsite evaluation by a team of OSHA safety and health experts. As a benefit for enacting safety programs, VPP-approved employers are exempt from programmed inspections. Right now the program includes 2,370 worksites nationwide.

According to OSHA, the average VPP worksite has a “days away, restricted or transferred” (the rate of injuries and illnesses that result in workers having days away from work, restricted work activity and/or a job transfer) case rate of 52 percent below the average for its industry.

“VPP is a great example of successful cooperation between private businesses and a government regulator,” Petri said in a statement. “Interactions between OSHA and businesses can often be adversarial; this program takes a different approach. I understand there are times when a heavy hand is needed, but most employers want a safe work environment. VPP represents a balanced and sensible approach to achieving this goal with reasonable oversight.”

Bill Pushes OSHA on Combustible Dust

H.R. 691 would accelerate OSHA’s rulemaking on combustible dust, a process that began at the agency in 2009. The agency’s most recent regulatory agenda set an October date for a Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act review, which can last up to 120 days. The agency has no target date for either a proposed or final standard.

The bill would require OSHA to issue interim protections within a year to prevent combustible dusts like those from coal, sugar or metal from building up in industrial facilities to hazardous levels, and set deadlines for finalizing a permanent rule.

Under the measure, OSHA would have to base much of its interim standard on current voluntary National Fire Protection Association guidelines.

“While OSHA has taken some limited steps to protect workers and property from combustible dust explosions, the widely recommended protections necessary to prevent these explosions are caught up in red tape and special-interest objections,” said Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, in a statement.

“The only way to overcome these unnecessary delays is through the targeted legislation that will expedite protections, because red tape must not be turned into an excuse not to protect workers from a preventable tragedy,” he said.

Since the February 7, 2008, explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga., that killed 14 workers, there have been 50 combustible dust explosions or fires, causing 15 deaths and 127 injuries, according to estimates from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

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