OSHA has announced it will address problems identified in its Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) in response to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs: Improved Oversight and Controls Would Better Ensure Program Quality,” issued this past May.

The GAO report recommends that the Secretary of Labor direct OSHA to (1) develop a documentation policy for information on actions taken by OSHA’s regions in response to fatalities and serious injuries at VPP sites, (2) establish internal controls that ensure consistent compliance by its regions with VPP policies, and (3) develop goals and performance measures for the VPP.

OSHA also has announced that it will conduct a comprehensive evaluation of its VPP and Alliance Program to determine how the agency should best allocate its resources among cooperative programs, enforcement and the agency's other activities.

Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Jordan Barab said he agrees with recommendations made in the GAO report. GAO's analysis recommended that OSHA strengthen the program's oversight activity, documentation and other aspects of program operations and impact to ensure consistency and adherence to existing OSHA policies and procedures.

VPP participation encompasses more than 2,200 worksites covering more than 800,000 workers.

"We will thoroughly review the VPP and Alliance Program to determine their effectiveness as well as review the programs' roles in helping the agency promote the safety and health of America's workers," said Barab.

To address the most recent GAO report's findings and recommendations about the VPP, OSHA will review and address problems including program management and oversight policies and procedures; documentation policy for actions taken in response to fatalities and serious injuries at VPP sites; and goals and performance measures for the VPP and internal OSHA controls that ensure consistent compliance with VPP policies by the agency's regional offices.

Longtime critics of the VPP seized on the GAO report to buttress their arguments that too much time and money has been spent in the past decade or more on building up voluntary compliance without adequate quality control measures.

OMB Watch recently said VPP may not be working as intended. GAO criticized OSHA, as well as state regulators, for failing to check up on facilities in the program after an on-the-job death, according to OMB Watch. “Many businesses are simply allowed to remain in the program with no threat of punishment. For example, one site had three fatalities in a five-year period, but program managers said the business could remain in the program until its next scheduled inspection,” according to an OMB Watch press release.

Problems can be traced back to management at the federal level. OSHA does not require sufficient documentation of workplace incidents nor does it adequately instruct and monitor state regulators, according to GAO.

Said OMB Watch: “GAO also found that some employees don’t like the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP).” According to the GAO report ”some employees were concerned that, after the application process and initial on-site review had been completed, sites may not maintain the high standards that qualified them for participation,” the report says. “Furthermore, some employees said that the injury and illness rates requirements of the VPP are used as a tool by management to pressure workers not to report injuries and illnesses.”

According to White House Office of Management and Budget figures, OSHA currently has $73 million at its disposal for “compliance assistance” which includes funds for the VPP, statesOMB Watch. “Under President Bush, OSHA’s budgets for enforcement, standard setting, and research all declined or held steady. Compliance assistance, on the other hand, saw a hefty increase, up from $46 million in FY 2000.

“Based on his budget request, President Obama appears to want to take OSHA in a new direction,” according to OMB Watch. “OSHA would see a seven percent increase in FY 2010 under Obama’s plan. That includes double-digit percentage increases for the standard setting unit and for enforcement. Meanwhile, Obama has proposed to hold funding flat for compliance assistance activities.”

President Obama has proposed over $563 million for OSHA’s FY 2010 budget, with an increase of approximately $45 million for federal enforcement and an increase of nearly $2 million for federal compliance assistance.”

The Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association, Inc. (VPPPA) issued a press statement saying it supports the GAO assessment that, “improved oversight and control would better ensure program quality.”

“The association has always advocated the importance of a stringent approval process and thorough controls insuring the integrity of VPP,” said VPPPA Executive Director R. Davis Layne. “VPPPA welcomes the opportunity to work with OSHA to validate the important role of VPP in workplace safety and health.”

Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Jordan Barab has accepted VPPPA’s invitation to speak at the Opening General Session of the 25th Annual National VPPPA Conference this August 24-27, 2009, in San Antonio, Texas. The association said it looks forward to Acting Assistant Secretary Barab’s comments and proposals in response to the 2009 GAO report and welcomes the opportunity to work with OSHA to ensure that only qualified worksites participate in VPP.

The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) has also weighed in, using the GAO criticisms of VPP to renew ASSE’s long-standing lobbying for third-party workplace safety and health auditing.

“ASSE's members understand the value of VPP in encouraging employers to invest in safety and health management systems. We believe increased oversight will demonstrate the program's overall effectiveness and help ensure that only qualified employers remain in the program,” ASSE President Warren K. Brown stated.

“ASSE has long urged Congress to allow for third party audits by qualified safety and health professionals to help encourage employer compliance with OSHA standards. Where the quality of an employer's safety and health management systems may be at issue, the training and experience of a safety and health professional would be useful both to an employer and OSHA in ensuring adherence to VPP requirements. ASSE also urges OSHA to bring together ASSE’s members and other stakeholders to help identify opportunities to improve oversight and strengthen VPP’s impact on worker safety and health.”