OSHA chief John Henshaw has seen the future, and he calls it voluntary compliance.

"VPP is where the future is," said Henshaw, referring to the agency's Voluntary Protection Program, in a speech at the annual meeting of the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association in Las Vegas last month.

"VPP companies continue to set the bar for safety and health excellence, not only in this country but around the world," he said.

Two years ago Henshaw set the goal of growing the VPP program ten-fold, from 800 to 8,000 sites. Last year, Titleist became the 1,000th VPP site.

In the next two years, OSHA expects at least 100 new participants in its Challenge program, set up to help aspiring companies build safety programs to VPP levels. At least 70 new participants from VPP Corporate pilot programs will roll over into VPP Star or Merit status. And new site approvals will continue through traditional VPP Star and Merit participation process.

"This is a significant new influx of participants — especially when you consider our current growth for VPP Star and Merit has been about 100 new sites per year," said Henshaw.

"I think we are now ready for a real growth surge," he said.

But some existing VPP sites worry that OSHA is more interested in quantity than quality. Henshaw tried to put those fears to rest.

"I want to make it perfectly clear, we are not interested in growth for growth’s sake," he said. "Our ultimate goal is to maintain the integrity and quality of the VPP program and prevent injuries illnesses, and fatalities in the workplace.

"Realistically, some companies who apply for VPP won’t be able to meet our standards for initial approval, nor our requirement of continuous improvement.

"We will turn down applicants if they don’t meet the high hurdle of excellence. Even at reapproval time, we will if we have to tell a participant, 'Your safety and health performance and management systems are no longer up to par. We suggest you withdraw.' We do this now, and we will continue to maintain a high bar of entry."

To reach its growth goals, OSHA will lean heavily on private industry Special Government Employees who assist on VPP evaluation teams.

Through July of this fiscal year, OSHA has had nearly 300 SGEs participate in on-site reviews. The agency currently has 414 active SGEs.

"Our ability to expand VPP toward our goal of 8,000 participants is going to (require) many, many more SGEs," said Henshaw. "Instead of one SGE per team, we expect to need two or three. And if you have industrial hygiene or construction expertise, we really will need you as we grow construction and other industry participation.

"We need to double or triple the cadre of SGEs."