The best advice I have for someone involved in workplace safety and health is simply this: Get into OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program.

Don't pass this advice off lightly. Whether you are the owner or manager of a company, a consultant, academic institution, union organization, safety and health professional, or someone just struggling in the trenches doing full- or part-time safety tasks in a workplace, VPP can help you in more ways than you may imagine.

The VPP started in the early 1980s and is now coming of age. It is tried and true. It works. Success begets success. In 1997, there were 399 workplaces in the program. By the end of 1998, the figure rose to 485 workplaces. And there are now hundreds of workplaces that are making plans to get into the VPP.

Clearing up misconceptions

Before we go any further, let's clear up some misconceptions about VPP:

o First, it is not a generic safety program. VPP is a site-specific management system to identify and correct hazards and improve the safety process at a workplace. It performs like a quality program but encompasses more.

o About 90 percent of VPP focuses on management programs. Technical issues - such as compliance with OSHA regulations - comprises only about 10 percent.

o You don't have to be perfect to be in the VPP, but you must have better-than-average safety performance and effective programs.

o Size doesn't matter. VPP works in very small to very large workplaces. Offices and federal work sites have been qualified into the VPP.

o Union or non-union orientation doesn't matter. Getting the OK from employees to participate in VPP does matter.

o There is no application fee. There are no initial or periodic fees for being a VPP site.

o OSHA personnel will partner with you to obtain and maintain VPP status. Once in the program, a workplace is exempt from routine compliance audits, but beyond that, all other rights and responsibilities remain pretty much the same as a non-VPP workplace.

Who benefits?

A direct benefit of VPP is that it integrates safety into the mainstream of business at a workplace. This alone should justify its existence. But here's how VPP benefits many individuals and groups with a stake in workplace health and safety:

Employers: If I owned a company, I would routinely ask the safety staff, "Do we have an effective safety program?" Numbers can be deceiving. The best way to prove an effective safety program exists is to qualify for the VPP. And the evaluation is free. VPP can be presented to customers as a quality standard. More important, though, VPP can be sold to investors in the company as a significant measure for being a socially responsible company.

Hang your hat on this one, it's going to be big. More than $1 billion (that's billion with a 'B') is invested each day in socially responsible investments. Plans are afoot to make VPP a hallmark for a socially responsible company.

Consultants: With the demise of the asbestos abatement business, a lead abatement market that has yet to take off, and weak hope for passage of new laws such as third-party audits, consultants are stumbling over themselves to get work. VPP is prime 'new market space' (for an explanation of this concept see Harvard Business Review, January-February 1999).

Academic institutions: By the time colleges and universities ramp up curriculums to meet employers' needs, their efforts are years too late. With hundreds of workplaces in the VPP now, and hundreds more joining, inserting VPP in the curriculum seems like a good bet to help prepare graduating students for eventual work.

Unions: Why any collective bargaining group would not want VPP is beyond me. VPP works like a three-legged stool. The legs are comprised of management support, OSHA partnership, and employee involvement. Take away any leg and the stool falls. Most unions clamor for more voice and action in their memberships' welfare. VPP can serve as the perfect tool for employees to help each other avoid injuries and illnesses.

Safety and health professionals: Guess what? It's really hard for a workplace to qualify into VPP without having oversight and periodic involvement from a CSP, CIH, or other safety and health professional. The VPP requires annual self-evaluation. This self-evaluation report must be sent to OSHA. A safety and health professional almost always participates in the evaluation and development of the report. Want more job security? Push VPP.

In the trenches: One of the biggest complaints among people doing safety work at a plant is that they don't get enough management support and recognition for their efforts. VPP solves this problem. The early precepts for VPP (see Federal Register 53, Number 133, July 12, 1988) included this proviso: A workplace's organizational structure must provide for the advancement of safety personnel. Safety personnel cannot be placed in dead-end jobs if VPP is to work. This concept holds today and is reviewed by VPP evaluators.

All the rest: It doesn't matter if you are selling safety equipment or supplies, are a health care provider, or are involved in some other aspect of safety - VPP is good for everyone. Excellent safety programs should be promoted and maintained. Safety should be integrated into the mainstream of business. OSHA, employers and employees should work together to prevent injuries and illnesses. VPP is tried and true. It works.

We struggle to address individual hazards and risks each day. While we may win each of these battles, we might lose the war if we fail to address the bigger safety picture, which is based on management systems. VPP is a management system. Convince your management that your workplace belongs in the VPP. It's not as scary as it sounds. As VPP develops, I'm sure you will discover additional benefits that I did not include in this article.

Both OSHA and the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants' Association (VPPPA) can put you in touch with a spokesperson from a VPP site. Hearing how VPP works from someone directly involved in the program is a good idea. Additional written information on VPP can be found on the Internet at or

By Dan Markiewicz, CIH, CSP, CHMM, senior industrial hygienist with Aeroquip-Vickers, Inc., Maumee, Ohio.

Look who benefits from VPP participation:

  • Employers
  • Safety and health professionals
  • Consultants
  • Organized labor
  • Employees
  • Academic institutions
  • Part-time safety practitioners
  • Safety equipment suppliers