In May, the Government Accountability Office issued a critical report assessing OSHA’s program for monitoring itsÂ designated Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) sites.Â Â There are about 2,200Â of these VPP site across the country whichÂ have met theÂ written program andÂ on-site evaluation criteria.Â AÂ VPP designation exempts the worksiteÂ fromÂ programmed OSHA inspections, and ifÂ anÂ inspection is conducted—because of a complaint, referral or fatality/catastrophe—-the employer is not cited for violations if theyÂ are promptly corrected.Â This recentÂ GAO report was peppered with phrases like “not sufficient,” “lack of policy,” does not have controls,” and “not met key requirements.”Â Most troubling to me, however, was theÂ GAOÂ conclusion:
âOSHA has not developed goals or measures to assess the performance of the VPP, and the agencyâs efforts to evaluate the programâs effectiveness have been inadequate.â
GAO also reminded us that they had already recommended in 2004 that these OSHA compliance assistanceÂ programs beÂ evaluatedÂ for cost-effectiveness,Â andÂ to do so BEFOREÂ they areÂ further expanded.Â Well, that idea was ignored by Mr. Foulke and company.Â The number of OSHA VPP sites doubledÂ in the time since that GAO recommendation was made.
Here we are, 5 years later, and still no data on whether VPP is a good use of OSHA’s scarce resources.Â Â MyÂ back-of-the-envelope calculation tells me that the resource demands of VPP are significant: 1,580+ existing sitesÂ (under federal OSHA responsibility), and another 87 new sites addedÂ (Jan-June ’09),Â is a lot of annualÂ reporting, on-site assistance, and scheduleÂ evaluationsÂ (every 1, 2, 3 or 5 years, depending on site’s status.)Â Â It makes me wonder how OSHA can really justify the diversion of resources.Â Remember, this is the agency known infamously for its underfunding—-as the Health and Safety Department of the AFL-CIO reminds us, it would take OSHAÂ 133 yearsÂ toÂ inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once.
The other major conclusion of GAO’s assessement of OSHA’s management of VPP was lack of written documentation in case files and insufficient national office oversight to ensure consistency throughout the country.Â In May, acting asst. secretary Jordan Barab responded to the GAO reportÂ by sayingÂ OSHA would address the problems identified by GAO and would “conduct a comprehensive evaluation of its VPP and Alliance Program.”Â Â When I heard this, it told me toÂ get ready for someÂ short-term fixes, but alsoÂ a longer-termÂ effort.
If my interpretation is correct, the short-term fix came last week when the acting asst. secretaryÂ issued “Improving Administration of the VPP.”Â Â It’s aÂ set of instructions (mostly to)Â OSHA’s field offices to address theÂ paperwork and documentation lapses identified by the GAO.Â Â (An undercurrent in theÂ GAO reportÂ seems to be a tension betweenÂ HQÂ who write the procedures, and field staff who have to implement them.)
“Some regional VPP officials told us that they have requested such guidance from OSHA’s national office, but the national office has not issued a directive on what information should be documented in the files or on how long it should be retained. The OSHA official responsible for overseeing the program did not agree with regional VPP officials, and stated that the VPP Manual addresses the documentation requirements.”
In the new instructions issued last week, OSHA HQÂ tellsÂ field staff, for example, if a worker is fatally injured (or another significant event occurs) at a VPP site, OSHA’s HQ Office of Partnership and Recognition be “immediately informed.”Â Â As GAO pointed out in their report, it’s hard to comprehend how a workplace can haveÂ VPP Star status when the firm had received 7 serious violationsÂ related to a fatality.Â [On this matter, the instruction simply reiterates the existing procedures for putting a site on conditional status–no new policy.]
Obviously, this new instruction to the field is meant to identify and fix paperworkÂ lapses and inconsistencies.Â But what’sÂ missing from the “Improving Administration of the VPP”Â memorandum is the real heart of the matter: measuring effectiveness.Â This is the longer-term project that willÂ take a bit more than six weeks for the new OSHA leadership to untangle.Â Â
I see it as a two part-task:Â
- How should each site’s H&S management system be measured for effectiveness?
- How should theÂ cost-effectiveness of VPPÂ be measured?Â Â
As far as measuring a site’sÂ program effectiveness, simple calculations of incident rates are probably not sufficient.Â As IÂ noted in a post Valero’s repeated violations and OSHA VPP, for a refinery,Â lost-time or restricted duty injury rates are not likely to be an useful measure of prevention-performance.Â Think about process safety management.Â Data onÂ unintended releases of hazardous substances,Â misplaced storage tanks or dozens of other missteps may be more appropriate indicators of anÂ ineffective process safety management system, than an OSHA recordable.Â Â [InÂ this newÂ instructionÂ from OSHA HQ to theÂ field,Â the primary measure of effectiveness isÂ still theÂ “total case incident rate” (TCIR) andÂ “days away, restricted or transferred rate (DART).Â How wouldÂ current VPP sites respond ifÂ OSHA proposes alternative measures of program effectiveness, such as unintended releases or near misses.]
The second part of the longer-term evaluationÂ question is measuring theÂ overall cost-effectiveness of VPP.Â ButÂ cost-effective for whom?:Â the taxpayer,Â OSHA,Â the company, the workers, OH&S in general?
It seems that when VPP participants are asked if the program is cost-effectiveÂ (seeÂ VPP Success Stories)Â they say “YES.”Â Â Â They use measures likeÂ increases in worker productivityÂ andÂ decreases in workers’ compensation insurance premiums.Â I believe them, and agree that these areÂ quantifiable benefits to the firm.Â Â Is that, however, what VPP is supposed to be?Â
What I’d like to knowÂ isÂ how the VPPÂ translate into aÂ direct benefit to OSHA?Â For example, in return for the resources expended on VPP sites, is OSHA in a position toÂ conduct more inspections of construction sites? assess hazards more thoroughly (e.g., taking IH samples), respond more promptly or thoroughly to whistleblowers?Â Â Â No.Â As far as I can tell VPP diverts resources from these core activities.Â Again,Â I’d like some examples of the tangible benefits to OSHA of VPP.
It was one thing back in the early 1980’s when there were a few dozen VPP sites across the country, and a handful of regional OSHA staff responsible for monitoring and coordinating with the sites.Â It might have even beenÂ collateral duty for some.Â Â Now, serving the VPP sites is aÂ full-time job.Â I wonder if it’s time for a new VPP model, one that is self-sufficient, not relying on OSHA resources for sustainability.Â With more than 2,200 sites across the country, and an association of their very own, perhaps its time for the VPP program to leave the OSHA nest and make it on its own.Â Â Besides, is having a comprehensive health and safety management system something that we should consider so extraordinary?Â
It may have been atypipcal in 1982, but today,Â shouldn’t we expect allÂ employers in the U.S. to have an effective injury and illness prevention system that involves workers and demands continuous improvement?