The Obama administration is taking its time to find a permanent OSHA chief, but that’s not stopping the Department of Labor from moving quickly to try to fix programs with bureaucratic problems, or to send clear signals that some program priorities have changed from the previous administration.

Here are three recent examples:

No goals for new VPP sites and alliances
Acting Assistant Secretary for OSHA Jordan Barab made comments at a Capitol Hill hearing in May that aroused questions about the agency’s support for its popular Voluntary Protection Program. Said Barab: “We need to better utilize the resources that we already have. In order to direct more of OSHA’s existing resources into enforcement and to provide time to address concerns in an upcoming GAO Report on the efficacy of OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), I have informed the field staff that we will suspend the previous administration’s practice of establishing goals for new Voluntary Protection Program sites and Alliances.”

In response, the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association, Inc. (VPPPA) sought and received confirmation from the U.S. Department of Labor that OSHA was not suspending the VPP, according to a rare press release issued by VPPPA.

Barab called VPPPA’s Executive Director R. Davis Layne, a former high-ranking OSHA official, and assured him that OSHA is not suspending VPP, according to the VPPPA press release. Indicated changes represent a shift in focus toward enforcement but do not equate to an elimination of OSHA’s VPP. In the course of the conversation, Barab accepted an invitation to attend the association’s 25th Annual National VPPPA Conference in San Antonio, Texas, August 24-27, 2009, and address the anticipated 2,500 attendees, according to the news release.

Cracking down on fraudulent trainers
OSHA is cracking down on fraudulent trainers by improving how trainers become authorized to teach and ensuring these trainers are in compliance with OSHA program guidelines, according to an agency press release.

Currently there is a national network of more than 16,000 independent trainers eligible to teach workers and employers about workplace hazards and to provide OSHA 10-hour course completion cards. But some trainers have fraudulently not provided the appropriate training in accordance with the program.

“The use of independent trainers has allowed OSHA to significantly extend its training capabilities,” said Jordan Barab, acting assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. “But OSHA will not tolerate fraudulent activity or unscrupulous trainers when workers’ health and lives may be at stake.”

Trainers are authorized by completing a one-week OSHA trainer course through an OSHA Training Institute Education Center. The trainers are then eligible to teach 10-hour programs that provide basic information to workers and employers about workplace hazards and OSHA, and 30-hour courses in construction, maritime and general industry safety and health hazards.

The program’s success has prompted some states and cities to legislate a requirement that workers complete training to earn an OSHA 10-hour card as a condition of employment. Because this training is becoming a requirement for gaining employment, the program has experienced fraudulent activity.

OSHA has increased unannounced monitoring visits to verify that trainers are in compliance with program requirements. OSHA will continue to refer fraudulent activity to the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General, and trainers caught falsifying information will be subject to criminal prosecution.

The public is asked to call a new outreach fraud hotline at 847-297-4810 to file complaints about program fraud and abuse. OSHA also has developed a new process for investigating and adjudicating complaints; and a “watch list” of outreach trainers who have received disciplinary action will be posted on OSHA’s public Web site.

OSHA began implementing other changes in 2008. These include requiring trainers to certify their classes and ensuring that training documentation is in accordance with OSHA’s guidelines before trainers can receive course completion cards. Tests for outreach training program trainer courses have been revised to ensure more rigorous exams for authorizing new trainers. OSHA is also developing an ethics module to be added to all trainer courses.

Strengthening enforcement of “severe violators”
Acting OSHA administrator Jordan Barab made his first trek to Capitol Hill in late April to testify at a hearing held by the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections of the House Committee on Education and Labor. The hearing was held to examine lapses in OSHA’s targeted inspection program for repeat penalty offenders, “the Enhanced Enforcement Program,” (EEP) as cited in a recent report by the Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

“The EEP was initiated in September, 2003 to help OSHA focus its resources on those employers who are indifferent to their obligations under the OSH Act, concentrating limited enforcement assets on those employers who not only failed to meet their obligations under the OSH Act, but who also appeared unlikely to decide on their own to improve working conditions at their workplaces,” Barab explained. “OSHA had discovered that a number of employers continued to expose workers to very serious dangers even after receiving OSHA citations for worker exposure to hazards that caused serious injuries and fatalities.

“In 2008, the EEP was amended in response to OSHA staff concerns that the program was not consistently accomplishing its purpose to focus on recalcitrant employers,” Barab added.

“In order for the EEP to be effective, OSHA area, regional, and national offices must accurately identify which employers are in need of enhanced enforcement and then apply its enhanced enforcement tools to these recalcitrant employers. The OIG report pointed out that this has not always occurred.

Barab announced a series of moves OSHA will take to bolster its enforcement efforts for so-called worst actors:

“The agency has established the EEP Revision Task Force,” said Barab. “This task force, comprised of personnel from the Directorate of Enforcement Programs as well as regional administrators, their deputies, and departmental attorneys, is designing a new program, which we are preliminarily renaming the Severe Violators Inspection Program (SVIP), so that we will be able to identify and inspect recalcitrant employers more effectively. The SVIP will be a comprehensive revision of the existing EEP, focusing more on large companies and less on small businesses.

“Some changes under consideration for the program include mandatory – not recommended – follow-up inspections, more inspections of other establishments of an identified company, and additional enhanced settlement provisions. The new program will include a more intensive examination of an employer’s history for systemic problems that would trigger additional mandatory inspections.

“Among the issues I will be looking at are whether OSHA is referring the proper number of (criminal prosecution cases relating to recalcitrant employers) to the Department of Justice and how we can work better with DOJ to prosecute these cases.”

Barab announced the formation of a new National Emphasis Program of specialized inspections focusing on flavoring chemicals (diacetyl). NEPs already exist for the hazards of combustible dust, amputations, lead, shipbreaking, crystalline silica, and trenching/excavations.