Inspector general to examine ‘model workplaces’ program

Initiative highlighted in Center investigation now subject of two probes

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 Updated:

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

Evan Bush/iWatch News

The Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General will examine a federal program that recognizes “model workplaces” and exempts them from regular inspections, the office’s audit plan for the coming fiscal year shows.

The assessment comes as an Occupational Safety and Health Administration task force is conducting its own review of the agency’s Voluntary Protection Programs — the subject of a recent Center for Public Integrity investigation.

The Center found that, since 2000, more than 80 workers have died at sites OSHA deemed the nation’s safest. But even when investigators found serious safety violations related to the fatal accidents, OSHA rarely used its authority to remove sites from the program.

The agency also places “model workplaces” in some of the most dangerous industries beyond the reach of special inspection programs despite evidence that similar hazards may exist at some of these sites. It does little to oversee the 21 states that operate their own versions of VPP. And the list of fatal accidents that officials use to monitor the program was incomplete; the agency later added deaths flagged by the Center.

In recent months, the agency has removed some sites highlighted in Center stories from the program and begun a “top-to-bottom review” of the experiment in cooperative regulation that began in 1982.

The Government Accountability Office has also raised concerns. In 2004, the GAO urged OSHA to evaluate VPP and other “voluntary compliance strategies” before continuing to expand them. By 2009, the program had grown significantly, and GAO raised concerns about its quality.

In announcing its plans to look at the program, the inspector general’s office noted, “Incorrect VPP approvals, during preliminary evaluation or a re-evaluation could leave workers vulnerable.” The review will focus on whether OSHA has clearly laid out criteria for getting into the program, and whether it has evaluated sites consistently, the office’s audit plan shows.

The inspector general’s office previously passed on a chance to look into the program. In 2009, a former OSHA employee filed a complaint, alleging that a “botched VPP evaluation” failed to catch hazards that resulted in a release of toxic acid that forced a Pennsylvania town to be evacuated. OSHA officials gave preliminary approval to the site as a program “Star” — and then, after the accident, quietly withdrew the honor before it became final.

After receiving the complaint, one official in the inspector general’s office wrote that “there appears to be sufficient cause for possible action,” emails show. But an assistant inspector general declined to conduct an audit, saying the GAO “previously reported inadequacies” with the program.

A spokesperson for the office declined to discuss why VPP has now come to the inspector general’s attention.

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