In May, the Government Accountability Office issued a critical report assessing OSHA’s program for monitoring its designated Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) sites.  There are about 2,200 of these VPP site across the country which have met the written program and on-site evaluation criteria.  A VPP designation exempts the worksite from programmed OSHA inspections, and if an inspection is conducted—because of a complaint, referral or fatality/catastrophe—-the employer is not cited for violations if they are promptly corrected.  This recent GAO report was peppered with phrases like “not sufficient,” “lack of policy,” does not have controls,” and “not met key requirements.”  Most troubling to me, however, was the GAO conclusion:

“OSHA has not developed goals or measures to assess the performance of the VPP, and the agency’s efforts to evaluate the program’s effectiveness have been inadequate.”

GAO also reminded us that they had already recommended in 2004 that these OSHA compliance assistance programs be evaluated for cost-effectiveness, and to do so BEFORE they are further expanded.  Well, that idea was ignored by Mr. Foulke and company.  The number of OSHA VPP sites doubled 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.   My back-of-the-envelope calculation tells me that the resource demands of VPP are significant: 1,580+ existing sites  (under federal OSHA responsibility), and another 87 new sites added (Jan-June ’09), is a lot of annual reporting, on-site assistance, and schedule evaluations (every 1, 2, 3 or 5 years, depending on site’s status.)   It makes me wonder how OSHA can really justify the diversion of resources.  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 OSHA 133 years to 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.  In May, acting asst. secretary Jordan Barab responded to the GAO report by saying OSHA would address the problems identified by GAO and would “conduct a comprehensive evaluation of its VPP and Alliance Program.”   When I heard this, it told me to get ready for some short-term fixes, but also a longer-term effort.

If my interpretation is correct, the short-term fix came last week when the acting asst. secretary  issued “Improving Administration of the VPP.”   It’s a set of instructions (mostly to) OSHA’s field offices to address the paperwork and documentation lapses identified by the GAO.  (An undercurrent in the GAO report seems to be a tension between HQ 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 HQ tells 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.”   As GAO pointed out in their report, it’s hard to comprehend how a workplace can have VPP Star status when the firm had received 7 serious violations related to a fatality.  [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 paperwork lapses and inconsistencies.  But what’s missing from the “Improving Administration of the VPP” memorandum is the real heart of the matter: measuring effectiveness.  This is the longer-term project that will take a bit more than six weeks for the new OSHA leadership to untangle.  

I see it as a two part-task: 

  1. How should each site’s H&S management system be measured for effectiveness?
  2. How should the cost-effectiveness of VPP be measured?  

As far as measuring a site’s program effectiveness, simple calculations of incident rates are probably not sufficient.  As I noted in a post Valero’s repeated violations and OSHA VPP, for a refinery, lost-time or restricted duty injury rates are not likely to be an useful measure of prevention-performance.  Think about process safety management.  Data on unintended releases of hazardous substances, misplaced storage tanks or dozens of other missteps may be more appropriate indicators of an ineffective process safety management system, than an OSHA recordable.   [In this new instruction from OSHA HQ to the field, the primary measure of effectiveness is still the “total case incident rate” (TCIR) and “days away, restricted or transferred rate (DART).  How would current VPP sites respond if OSHA proposes alternative measures of program effectiveness, such as unintended releases or near misses.]

The second part of the longer-term evaluation question is measuring the overall cost-effectiveness of VPP.  But cost-effective for whom?: the taxpayer, OSHA, the company, the workers, OH&S in general?

It seems that when VPP participants are asked if the program is cost-effective (see VPP Success Stories) they say “YES.”    They use measures like increases in worker productivity and decreases in workers’ compensation insurance premiums.  I believe them, and agree that these are quantifiable benefits to the firm.   Is that, however, what VPP is supposed to be? 

What I’d like to know is how the VPP translate into a direct benefit to OSHA?  For example, in return for the resources expended on VPP sites, is OSHA in a position to conduct more inspections of construction sites? assess hazards more thoroughly (e.g., taking IH samples), respond more promptly or thoroughly to whistleblowers?   No.  As far as I can tell VPP diverts resources from these core activities.  Again, 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.  It might have even been collateral duty for some.  Now, serving the VPP sites is a full-time job.  I wonder if it’s time for a new VPP model, one that is self-sufficient, not relying on OSHA resources for sustainability.  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.   Besides, is having a comprehensive health and safety management system something that we should consider so extraordinary? 

It may have been atypipcal in 1982, but today, shouldn’t we expect all employers in the U.S. to have an effective injury and illness prevention system that involves workers and demands continuous improvement?