The Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association’s (VPPPA) 2022 Safety+ Symposium and Expo opened Tuesday, August 23, 2022 in Washington, D.C. with an opening address from Doug Parker, OSHA’s Assistant Secretary of Labor. He has been in the role since November 2021.

Parker began by emphasizing the importance of making real change means not just focusing on compliance.

“We have to embrace health and safety: the core value and our mission at OSHA is to make health and safety a core value in every workplace in America,” he said. If we want to change culture, we have to start by showing employers how to do the right thing. And VPP is a critical model in doing that. But it doesn't stop there. We want to go beyond that. And we want to work with employers. We want to work with unions. We want to work with our state partners in advancing this notion. This vision of health and safety as a core value in every workplace in America.”


Health and safety are priorities for all

Priorities differ for everyone, however, most people will state that the health and safety of their families is what they care most about. Parker said we don’t see that enough in the workplace.

“When there's a moment when you have to make a decision about whether you're going to focus on health and safety, or whether you're going to do something more expedient, sometimes people take a risk and it ends too often as a tragedy.

“To embrace this model, we really have to embrace it across all sectors, including government. It has to be as important as any other aspects of a business, whether it's inventory, or making payroll, or any other aspect of the job that has to be ingrained.’

He said the VPP is a model for that. If you make worker safety and health a core value, it’s more than just having a health and safety management system in place.

“Worker health and safety is a right for every worker, and it’s good business as well,” Parker said. “The VPPPA are ambassadors of this core message.”


Thinking differently

Parker also stressed the willingness to think differently. He said OSHA has been embracing that mentality, and one of the ways they’re thinking differently is changing how they think about worker voice.

“For too long there’s been too much conflict between workers and management, and we have to find common ground,” he said. “Workers have a tremendous amount of knowledge and knowhow and ability to contribute to your operations both from a profit perspective and from a health and safety perspective. And if you listen to workers, not only will you learn about what you need to be doing in health and safety, but you also learn how to be a better business because ideas have to be fostered. They have to be promoted. And they have to be brought to the forefront and given respect. And if you do that, it'll pay dividends.

“We also have to think about equity. That's a word that gets thrown around a lot but what it means to me is that making sure that everyone is included in our vision of health and safety in the workplace. And then when we're listening to people, workers, management, whoever it may be, that we're making sure that every voice is heard, and that there are people that are marginalized, and that regardless of your race and ethnicity, gender, that you have a seat at the table and making sure that health and safety is a core value. Because if that doesn't happen, those people are going to be left behind.”


Beyond compliance

He said that OSHA is also working on being “bold,” which includes stronger enforcement.

Parker said OSHA has been on track this year to take on more egregious cases than they have ever done in their history. He said, however, that being bold is also about facilitating communication between employers and workers to make workplaces safer, and going beyond compliance.

He said OSHA will always play the compliance role and will always have inspectors doing enforcement activity, but the current administration is open to conversations and opening new engagement on how we can have deeper engagement to advance worker health and safety as a core value.


New initiatives at OSHA

Parker said their No. 1 priority at OSHA over the past year has been rebuilding their ranks.

“Last August, we had the lowest number of staff at OSHA in its 50-year history,” he said. “So we’ve been working aggressively to build the program back.”

He said OSHA has hired more than 400 people this year and will continue to hire until they have filled all the vacancies.

OSHA is also working on an infectious disease standard that will cover healthcare and other high-risk industries to make sure the US will not be in the same position it was when COVID-19 began, Parker said.