IMPACT: OSHA strengthens rules for 'model workplace' program

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The VPP “Star” flag marks the federal government’s approval of the safety program at Valero’s Texas City, Texas, oil refinery, where technician Tommy Manis died in a December 2009 explosion

PBS

Companies participating in a federal program that rewards “model workplaces” with exemptions from some safety inspections now will face automatic removal after work-related deaths or particularly serious violations.

The new policy, issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, comes after a 2011 Center for Public Integrity investigation found a significant number of deaths at these sites that had resulted in few consequences for the companies involved, even after inspectors found they were at fault. The workplaces often stayed in the program, remaining exempt from regular OSHA inspections.

“We want to ensure that everyone in the program is really one of the best of the best,” Jordan Barab, the agency’s second-in-command, said of the changes.

After the Center series two years ago, OSHA convened a task force to conduct a review of the Voluntary Protection Programs, known as VPP. Last August, the task force issued a report urging, among other things, an overhaul of how the agency responds to serious accidents at sites in the program.

Now, that tougher stance is formal OSHA policy. Any work-related death will result in an automatic notice of termination – a significant departure from the agency’s previous, ad hoc approach. The most serious types of violations also will lead to automatic termination, even if they weren’t uncovered during the investigation of a death. These include infractions deemed “willful” – those in which the employer intentionally broke the rules or acted with “plain indifference” toward them – and cases that would land a company in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which targets employers with a history of intentional or repeated violations or a refusal to fix cited problems. The Center series identified a number of sites that had committed such violations but were allowed to remain in the program.

Companies can appeal the termination notice, and, though the agency is willing to entertain evidence that special circumstances may have been involved, Barab said, “The basic goal is to put the burden on the company to show why they shouldn’t be terminated.”

The first site that will be evaluated under OSHA’s new policy is a chemical plant in Magnolia, Ark., owned by Albemarle Corp., where a contract worker fell to his death in June, Barab said. An enforcement inspection is ongoing at the site. As of July 11, the company still was touting its VPP “Star” status on its website, despite a provision in the new policy that places sites where a death has occurred on a sort of probationary status while the investigation is ongoing. Such sites are not supposed to display the VPP flag or other paraphernalia – status symbols within many industries.

A spokeswoman for Albemarle would not comment on the investigation but said in a statement, “We are firm believers in the principles behind OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program.”

Another deadly accident at a “model workplace” just missed being covered by the new policy. A fire at ExxonMobil’s oil refinery in Beaumont, Texas, in April injured 12 contract workers, with two later succumbing to burns. OSHA is still investigating.

“We are fully supporting OSHA’s efforts to determine the root cause and ensure that a similar incident does not occur again,” a spokesman for ExxonMobil said in a statement.

The oil giant has a number of other VPP sites, including three more just in Beaumont. Barab said a decision about whether to evaluate these sites as well had not been made.

Neither Albemarle nor ExxonMobil would say whether they believed their sites should remain in VPP.