OSHA’s Oversight of Model-Workplace Program Criticized

By Roy Maurer Dec 30, 2013

The Labor Department’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) lacks oversight controls, according to the department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

The VPP, run by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), exempts participating employers from most programmed OSHA inspections as long as they maintain better than average injury and illness rates and have an agency-approved safety-management system. 

Since launching in 1982, the VPP has been a popular collaboration between regulators and the business community, meant to reward good actors and better manage OSHA’s limited resources by allowing participants to police themselves.

To ensure that program participants maintain exemplary worksite safety and health practices, OSHA evaluates businesses’ worksites during their initial application for the VPP and does periodic onsite re-evaluations. In addition, the agency reviews employers’ annual self-evaluation reports, which are followed by inspections.

The OIG audited the program’s fiscal year 2012 performance and found that:

  • Thirteen percent of participants had injury and illness rates above industry averages or were cited with violations of safety and health standards, but most of these participants were allowed to remain in the program.
  • OSHA policy allowed participants with injury and illness rates above industry averages to potentially remain in the program for up to six years, “raising serious questions as to whether the companies were fully protecting their workers.”
  • Eleven percent of participants were not evaluated in a timely manner. Some re-evaluations were more than a year overdue.
  • OSHA could not identify all VPP participants or the number of program applicants because it tracked VPP data from 11 national and regional databases that were not reconciled. As a result, “OSHA did not have an accurate count of how many worksites were in the program (1,746 to 1,851) or how many applications were awaiting approval (20 to 232).”
  • The agency used unreliable injury and illness data to evaluate participants and report program statistics as a success story. For example, in congressional testimony as well as on its Web page, OSHA included the statistic that the average VPP participant had injury and illness rates that were 52 percent below the industry average.

The OIG found significant differences between the rates used to develop the statistics and the injury and illness rates for the same period as reported on participants’ annual self-assessments and OSHA’s onsite re-evaluations. “OSHA compiled the 52 percent statistic from employers’ annual self-assessment reports but did not reconcile the information with onsite evaluation results,” the report said. “As a result, OSHA’s data was not reliable and does not support performance results.”

To improve program oversight, the OIG recommended that OSHA do the following:

  • Re-evaluate its policy of allowing worksites with high injury and illness rates to stay in the VPP for up to six years.
  • Improve data reliability by using one database with appropriate information controls, or implement processes to ensure that reconciliations of VPP databases are conducted regularly and before reports on statistics are generated.
  • Monitor implementation of OSHA’s recent directive ensuring that prompt action is taken regarding fatalities, injuries, and serious violations and fines at VPP sites.
  • Develop and implement processes and priorities that will ensure that participants are re-evaluated promptly once their VPP membership status is up for renewal.

OSHA Responds

In a five-page response, Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels acknowledged some “deficiencies and inconsistencies” in the management of the VPP but said that the agency has “made a substantial effort” over the past four years to improve the program and that the vast majority of the participating worksites have exemplary safety and health management systems.

Michaels disagreed with the OIG’s assertion that 13 percent of VPP sites—4 percent cited for serious violations and 9 percent with injury and illness rates above their respective industry averages—did not fully protect employees’ safety and health. “The vast majority of sites were addressed in accordance with OSHA policy,” he said.

According to Michaels, OSHA addressed the 4 percent of employers that were cited for serious violations of agency standards with its May 2013 directive outlining a course of action to follow after fatalities and serious injuries. As for the remaining 9 percent, he said, “OSHA takes issue with OIG’s presumption that simply having average injury and illness rates above industry rates, whether for two or three years, results in VPP participant programs that are not fully protective.” He noted that the agency does not believe that every participant that exceeds the industry average is necessarily failing to fully protect its workers. 

“OSHA believes that given the sensitivity and variation of injury and illness rates, especially for small businesses, it is better to average rates over a specified time frame and provide companies a designated period to correct conditions leading to higher rates,” he explained. OSHA evaluates VPP employers based on a three-year average and doesn’t require them to take action until that average surpasses industry rates. At that point, companies with high rates at the three-year mark are expected to adopt a plan aimed at cutting rates within two years or face the choice of voluntarily withdrawing from the program or being cut from it. 

In addition, Michaels said: “Injury and illness rates are lagging indicators that provide only a partial impression of an overall program. As a result, we do not agree that the review of injury and illness rates alone provides enough data to support OIG’s conclusion that participants with higher than industry-average injury and illness rates do not have systems that fully protect employees.” 

Nevertheless, he agreed that data integrity and timeliness are issues that OSHA must address. “OSHA takes seriously the VPP principle of continuous improvement, which we expect of both participants and ourselves.” 

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

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