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IMPACT: Agency task force conducting ‘top-to-bottom review’ of ‘model workplaces’ program

Evaluation to look at ‘legitimate concerns’ raised in Center investigation

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The Department of Labor building in Washington, D.C., which is home to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Evan Bush/iWatch News

A federal task force is conducting a “top-to-bottom review” of a controversial program that exempts “model workplaces” from regular safety inspections, a Department of Labor official confirmed this week.

The review is focusing in part on “legitimate concerns” raised earlier this year in a Center for Public Integrity investigation, said Jordan Barab, the No. 2 official at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which runs the program.

The Center’s investigation found that, since 2000, more than 80 workers have died at workplaces in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs, known as VPP – a club of more than 2,400 sites that are supposed to be the nation’s safest. In more than half of these cases, the mandatory inspection triggered by the fatal accident found serious safety violations.  Yet these deaths rarely led to serious consequences for the company, and OSHA has seldom used its authority to boot a site from the program.

Among the questions the agency will have to address: What should happen when a worker is killed at one of these OSHA-recognized sites?

OSHA’s policy on responding to fatal accidents at VPP sites is one of “the first things we are looking at,” Barab said. The task force, which has six members pulled from OSHA’s local, regional and national offices, has submitted its report, which is being reviewed and will have to go through the agency’s lawyers, he said.

The document includes recommendations on how to improve the program, but Barab would not provide details. “I’m not saying we’re going to change everything, but we are looking at [the recommendations],” he said.

The ongoing review of VPP comes years after federal auditors raised concerns about the program’s rapid growth during the George W. Bush administration and repeatedly urged OSHA to evaluate it.

In a 2004 report, the Government Accountability Office warned that the planned expansion of VPP and other “voluntary compliance strategies” could tax OSHA’s limited resources and urged the agency to evaluate the program, which began in 1982 as part of the Reagan administration’s emphasis on partnering with the business community. OSHA commissioned a study that the GAO later determined to be “unreliable” and “flawed.”

In 2009, the GAO went further, raising concerns about the quality of the program and again urging OSHA to conduct an evaluation. In an interview with the Center in March, Barab said the agency had decided not to review VPP. “There are plenty of things that need to be assessed and evaluated,” he said, “and all of them cost money to evaluate.”

This week, however, Barab said, “There are some legitimate questions out there about the legitimacy of the program, and we want to make sure that all the participants in the program should be in the program.”

OSHA already has taken some action. Less than a week after the Center highlighted a fatal explosion at an American Packaging Corp. plant in Columbus, Wis., OSHA told the company it was considering kicking the site out of VPP, and the company agreed to withdraw. Weeks after receiving detailed questions from the Center about a U.S. Postal Service site in Philadelphia, OSHA booted the mail processing center from VPP. And the agency recently acknowledged that its internal database of deaths at VPP sites was incomplete and that it had updated the list to include additional accidents identified by the Center.