OSHA’s Jordan Barab Talks VPP Future

OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) is often hailed as an example of what’s possible when business and government partner to promote workplace safety. In recent years; however, some members of the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants Association (VPPPA) have been concerned that OSHA’s support for VPP is waning, and that it is no longer the budgetary priority it once was for the agency.

Comments by the Deputy Assistant Secretary for OSHA, Jordan Barab, to the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections will likely do little to assuage fears that VPP companies could be looking at big changes regarding the preferential treatment they currently receive and/or the agency’s investment in the program overall.

To put Barab’s comments in context, it may be helpful to have a better understanding of the relationship between OSHA and VPP companies.

VPP Background

On OSHA’s VPP Web page, OSHA states that VPP recognizes employers with “effective safety and health management systems” that “maintain injury and illness rates below national Bureau of Labor Statistics averages for their respective industries.” Similar to OSHA’s proposed Injury and Illness Prevention Program (I2P2), companies in the VPP “work proactively to prevent fatalities, injuries, and illnesses through a system focused on: hazard prevention and control; worksite analysis; training; and management commitment and worker involvement.”

Participating businesses submit applications to OSHA and undergo evaluations by safety and health professionals. Continuation in the program requires periodic re-evaluations, but while actively participating, VPP employers are exempt from OSHA programmed inspections.

Barab’s Message to House SubCommittee

After speaking generally about the success of the OSHA’s VPP, Barab said:

Despite its enormous success, there are serious issues with VPP that we are striving to address. First, in these challenging economic times, OSHA must struggle to meet competing priorities and balance our resources. Make no mistake: the Department of Labor is committed to VPP, as well as OSHA's other cooperative programs, but like every other Federal agency, we need to make some very hard decisions about how to allocate our limited resources where we will get the most worker protection "bang for our buck." Our challenge, therefore, is to maintain an active, quality VPP while also providing assistance to small businesses, help for vulnerable workers, support to enable workers to exercise their rights under the law, and an active enforcement program that focuses on the worst offenders – the companies that don't get the message, continue to ignore the law, and needlessly put workers' lives in jeopardy.

The suggestion is that VPP should not necessarily expect to see same level monetary support in the future and the program has enjoyed in the past. Later in his address, Barab pointed up some concerns OSHA has with VPP in its current state. He said:

VPP is recognized and respected as a quality program, one that recognizes the best of the best – companies that excel in safety and health and show that it is possible for businesses to be both profitable and safe. Nevertheless, if the integrity of this program is compromised, it doesn't matter how many participants the program has or how fast it is growing. Over the past years, unfortunately, the program has faced very difficult challenges in this area.

Barab said VPP was basically a victim of its success. It grew so quickly that number of re-approvals strained the agency’s resources. He also said that since 2000 “there had been numerous fatalities at VPP sites…and no action was taken against the participating companies, even in some cases where the fatalities were linked to serious or willful violations…[and that] some companies were retained in the VPP, even when their injury and illness rates were worse than the averages for their respective industries.”

Barab then referenced concerns raised by the The Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2004 and 2009, that warned VPP was growing too fast and that it lacked appropriate quality controls. Barab outlined a number of steps OSHA has taken in response to the GAO reports, including issuing five policy memorandum “designed to strengthen the management and internal control of VPP.”

In his closing remarks, Barab sounded an up note, saying VPP is an integral part of its toolbox and that VPP has demonstrated its effectiveness in advancing its goal of protecting employees. He said VPP “will continue to have the Department of Labor’s full support.

Whether Barab’s conciliatory ending will be enough address the fears VPP companies have regarding the future of VPP, we’ll have to wait and see. What is certain is that this issue will continue to be a hot topic of discussion for those under the VPPPA umbrella at VPPPA National Conference in Anaheim, CA this August .