Update below (7/8/2011)
Just a few months after the Obama Administration took office, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a scathing report on OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). The program is supposed to recognize workplaces with exceptional safety programs, but GAO’s investigators identified participant worksites that had multiple fatalities and gross violations of safety standards. The late Senator Kennedy said
“GAO’s report makes clear that OSHA has strayed too far from its core mission of protecting the safety and health of workers on the job. The agency has spent too much time seeking voluntary compliance from employers and too little time enforcing the law.”
Senator Patty Murray echoed that sentiment, saying a
“hands-off approach to a voluntary enforcement program is a recipe for disaster”
and Congressman George Miller (D-CA) added the GAO report
“only confirms what many had already known–the Bush administration’s misdirected reliance on voluntary programs siphoned scarce resources that were needed for enforcement of our nation’s health and safety laws.”
The young Obama Administration’s OSHA promised to implement reforms to the VPP, including internal controls to ensure that only qualified worksites receive the OSHA designation as an exemplary workplace, and refining the measures to assess the program’s effectiveness.
Beginning today, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and PBS‘s Need to Know will be reporting on their 8-month investigation of OSHA’s VPP. CPI’s series “Model Workplaces, Imperiled Workers” commences with a description of an explosion at a Tropicana juice plant in Florida in 2005. Two employees received serious burn injuries. Despite this worksites designation by OSHA as a model worksite for safety, federal inspectors looking into the blast learned that workers were told to ‘throw safety out the window’ and get the work done.
The CPI and PBS investigators will profile more of these cases, and provide insight from workplace safety experts who question the criteria used by OSHA to assess the safety performance of these sites. One recently retired OSHA veteran, David DiTommaso, is quoted in CPI’s story:
“If you have an OSHA violation and somebody died as a result of that, I can’t imagine how that company can stay in the program.”
We expect the reporters will attempt to describe the pros and cons of a recognition program sponsored by an enforcement agency.
One of the burn victims from the Tropicana blast, Rob Hackley, still suffers from both his physical and mental injuries. Besides all that, his wife told the CPI reporters:
“The one thing that really still bothers Rob is that they got to keep their ‘Star’ status. If safety really had been a priority, this wouldn’t have happened.”
That’s an issue that federal OSHA needs to answer. We hope to hear from them in these media pieces.
The Need to Know companion television feature will begin airing on Friday, July 8; check you local PBS station’s schedule for the broadcast time.
(Update 7/8/2011: PBS’ Need to Know feature: “Safety matters: danger in the ‘model’ workplace”