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Does OSHA's helping hand really help?

OSHA’s voluntary compliance strategies show promising results but should be fully evaluated before they are expanded, according to a new report by the Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

With OSHA increasing its emphasis on voluntary compliance strategies to reach more employers and employ its resources most effectively, GAO assessed the types of strategies used, the extent of their use, and their effectiveness.

OSHA plans to significantly expand its voluntary compliance programs over the next few years, although such expansion may tax its limited resources, according to the report. Today, OSHA has more than 1,053 VPP sites and has set a challenge goal of 8,000. OSHA's voluntary compliance programs appear to have yielded many positive outcomes, but the agency does not yet have adequate data to assess their individual and relative effectiveness, according to the GAO.

Employers and employees at nine work sites visited attested to reductions in injuries and illnesses and improved relationships with one another and with OSHA. But the agency has just begun to evaluate its programs and much of its data is insufficient for evaluation, says the report.

The lack of such data makes it difficult for OSHA to articulate priorities and necessary resource allocations. Additional strategies that researchers and specialists suggested generally fell into four categories:

  • providing more incentives to encourage additional employers to voluntarily improve workplace safety and health;

  • promoting more systematic approaches to workplace safety and health (management systems);

  • focusing more specifically on high-hazard, high-injury workplaces; and

  • using third-party approaches (consultation and verification) to achieve voluntary compliance.

    Trend lines for all of OSHA's voluntary compliance programs have been on the upswing. VPP sites have increased from less than 200 in 1993 to more than 1,000. More than 400 small businesses are recognized by state programs for exemplary safety and health programs. Strategic partnership agreements to address specific industry problems at multiple work sites now exceed 200. And alliance agreements primarily with trade or professional groups to conduct training and outreach number approximately 100.

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