In late August, acting OSHA boss Jordan Barab addressed the annual meeting of the Voluntary Protection Program Participants Association (VPPPA) in San Antonio, using a positive, encouraging tone appropriate for his audience of above-average safety and health performers.

“I want to begin by conveying U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis' best wishes and gratitude for the commitment to excellence exhibited by every VPP participant,” said Barab.

”I'm also grateful to all the other VPP participants whom I've met since coming to OSHA in April who have expressed, with admirable and impressive enthusiasm, the benefits they have gained from VPP,” he continued.

Barab described the VPPPA audience of hourly workers, safety and health professionals, and public and private sector workers as “all true believers in workplace safety and health.”

”It's exhilarating and heartwarming to be here in the middle of so much positive energy,” he said.

This upbeat intro was intended to calm VPP member companies, who fear the new regime at OSHA intends to pull back support for VPP activity, which was one of the lynchpins of OSHA policy in the Bush administration.

This fear has been fueled by a recent government report critical of OSHA’s oversight of the VPP, and tough “enforcement first” rhetoric coming for the Labor Department.

Barab didn’t beat about the bush (no pun intended) discussing OSHA’s new priorities:

”We're all aware that VPP is facing a number of challenges in the near future, and I gladly accepted your invitation to speak before you today so that, together, we can chart a course that will preserve the best of VPP while addressing the challenges.

”First… Secretary Solis and this administration is committed to putting more emphasis and more resources into enforcement. In accordance with those goals, the president has asked for a significant increase in OSHA's budget for FY 2010, and almost all of that increase will be dedicated to restoring our enforcement and standard-setting capacity to FY 2001 levels.

”We know that this country is in a difficult economic situation, and this has challenged government in many ways. Certainly we can't look forward to significant funding increases in coming years; the ‘pie’ in the budget chart is not going to get bigger. So, as we move forward in deciding how to meet OSHA's new goals and priorities, we need to make difficult decisions, and we will need your help to identify what is best about VPP and how we can maintain and improve on those features.

”Second, I think you're all aware of the two Government Accountability Office reports related to VPP. In 2004, the GAO issued a report calling on OSHA to evaluate the effectiveness of our cooperative programs before expanding them significantly. While the programs grew, the evaluation was never done. Most recently, on May 20, the GAO issued a report that found serious problems in OSHA's oversight of the programs and consistency problems between OSHA regions.

”GAO made three key recommendations to OSHA:
  • Develop a documentation policy for information on actions taken by OSHA's regions in response to fatalities and serious injuries at VPP sites.
  • Establish internal controls that ensure consistent compliance by the agency's regions with VPP policies.
  • Develop goals and performance measures for the VPP.
OSHA has issued a new guidance addressing many of these recommendations. In particular, to address questions of consistent compliance with VPP policies, we will be reviewing the Modified Application Process (MAP) and other processes that deviate from our VPP Policies and Procedures Manual.

”We are putting together an action plan for both the national and field offices to address GAO's recommendations and to look at the bigger picture. With the involvement and support of our stakeholders, we will consider how our cooperative programs should fit into OSHA's overall goals and budget. Our aim is to strike a proper balance with cooperative programs and our current - and necessary - emphasis on standards and enforcement.

”In response to questions posed by the GAO, Congress and other stakeholders, we are also taking a fresh look at VPP participant exemptions from National Emphasis Program inspections, as well as General Schedule inspections. And, although VPP members are not currently part of the Recordkeeping NEP, we are planning to develop ways to include VPP members in OSHA's focus on accurate recordkeeping.

”I will be interested in hearing your reaction to these changes. So far, however, I'm happy to report that in the months I have been here, I have received a positive response as I've raised these issues with your Board members. For example, I have asked every VPP member whom I've met, "What do you like most about the program-" and "What do you and your employees get out of it-" They have responded with inspiring stories about the improvement in their safety and health programs and the pride their employees take in the program.Not one has mentioned the inspection exemptions as a major benefit of being a VPP member.

Barab went on to tackle another touchy issue head on — ethical behavior. This hasn’t been widely publicized as a VPP-related concern, but here’s what Barab had to say:

“During on-site visits, including ceremonies, it is critical that members of the OSHA teams are not offered gifts that could appear to unduly influence them in making objective decisions about the facility being evaluated. Equally important, members of OSHA teams may not solicit special treatment from VPP candidates and participants, including (but not limited to) on-site meals.

”As a reminder, ethics requirements were recently sent out to every OSHA employee, and they were encouraged to contact our ethics attorney's office whenever they have a question.

”Everyone's cooperation on this matter will help ensure that VPP retains its high standard for unquestionable quality and merit.”

Finally, Barab challenged the VPPPA audience, as he did in the same convention hall in June to attendees at the American Society of Safety Engineers annual meeting, to help OSHA fend off business lobbyists’ claims that accidents often are a cost of doing business.

“Speak out more in the general public about the value of prevention and worker safety and health. Give public talks and write articles. All too often we hear from some employers and politicians that ‘Hey, construction work or factory work is inherently dangerous. Stuff happens.’ Well, you are the ones who know that's not true. Even dangerous work can be done safely. Successful companies don't thrive in spite of a strong health and safety program; they thrive because of such programs - and you're the ones that can tell that story to the world.”