Citing a 2011 Center for Public Integrity investigation, a Labor Department official said Thursday that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has reformed a program that rewards workplaces reporting lower-than-average injury and illness rates.
OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP), which exempt “model workplaces” from routine inspections, were established in 1982. VPP tripled in size between 2000 and 2011, as OSHA’s inspection staff diminished and membership requirements were relaxed. The Center’s investigation found that at least 80 workers had died at VPP sites during that period.
At a hearing before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Jordan Barab, the Labor Department’s deputy assistant secretary for occupational safety and health, said the department “is committed to VPP. 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.”
After the Center’s investigation, an internal OSHA workgroup reviewed VPP and submitted recommendations for improved management, Barab said. Reforms include increased funding for a program that offers free advice to small businesses on worker safety practices, he said. A whistleblower program has been expanded, with four new laws designed to protect workers from retaliation for reporting potential safety hazards.
Barab also reported a shift away from incentive programs based on keeping injury and illness rates low. Such programs often discourage workers from reporting injuries, he said; OSHA now promotes programs that encourage and reward employee involvement instead.
“We’ve seen companies, for example, offer a pizza party or enter workers into a raffle if they met a goal of not incurring reportable injuries over a specified period of time,” Barab said. “Programs like these, while possibly well intentioned, ultimately discourage workers from reporting injuries. Unreported injuries that are not investigated cannot be used to help prevent future injuries. This is not what we want and ultimately, I do not think it is what VPP participants want, either.”
Because of VPP’s rapid growth, OSHA has accumulated a backlog of reapproval evaluations for participating companies. Instead of easing standards, OSHA will focus on “maintaining the integrity of the program,” aiming to eliminate the backlog by the end of 2012, Barab said.
R. Davis Layne, executive director of the VPP Participants’ Association (VPPPA), disagreed with OSHA’s new approach.
“OSHA did not think out all of the implications of this new policy,” Layne said. He said some member companies had been told that “any incentive program, regardless of its nature,” could jeopardize their VPP status.