Center wins first Pulitzer!

Black lung investigation honored

Get more award-winning investigations:

IMPACT: OSHA's 'model workplace' program needs reform, report finds

By

 Updated:

So-called “model workplaces” that won exemptions from regular inspections will now face greater scrutiny, amid concern over deaths and safety breakdowns at some plants held up as industry leaders.

A report suggesting reforms, from a task force of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, comes more than a year after a Center for Public Integrity series revealed that deadly accidents and serious safety violations at these sites had gone largely unpunished by OSHA.

The report about the agency’s Voluntary Protections Programs, known as VPP, recommends that OSHA overhaul its policies for responding to serious accidents at these sites. Regional officials should thoroughly re-evaluate sites that have such problems, the report said, and they should have broader authority to kick out problem workplaces. The agency also should suspend sites while investigations are ongoing, the report recommended.

"This report will serve as a valuable road map for the agency as we continue to address issues present in VPP," Jordan Barab, OSHA's No. 2 official, said in a statement. "In general, we agree with most of the findings of the report, and have already or will be implementing a number of substantive changes to the program based on the recommendations included."

The association representing companies in the “model workplace” program is holding its annual conference in Anaheim, Calif., and no one from the organization could be reached for comment Monday.

The task force, composed almost entirely of regional and local OSHA officials, identified muddled guidance, inaccurate data and regional inconsistencies that have led to problems within the program.

As the Government Accountability Office has noted, OSHA lacks evidence detailing the program’s effectiveness. The task force acknowledged as much, suggesting ways the agency could better gather information on sites in the program.

The report also suggests OSHA should consider abandoning the initiative known as “VPP Corporate,” which allows certified companies to receive streamlined evaluations at all their sites.

One Center story highlighted the initiative and its second participant, the U.S. Postal Service. At the same time one OSHA branch was approving large numbers of postal service sites into VPP, the agency’s enforcement branch was alleging widespread safety problems at all mail processing centers nationwide – an approach one former OSHA official called “schizophrenic.”

The task force’s report is not the final look at VPP: The Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General announced earlier this year that it would also look into the program.