OSHA announced earlier this month it will address problems indentified in its Voluntary Protection Programs in response to a new Government Accountability Office report, "OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs: Improved Oversight and Controls Would Better Ensure Program Quality."

The report recommends improved oversight and additional controls to ensure participating companies maintain effective workplace safety and health management systems. OSHA will also 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 other agency activities.

Immediately after the GAO report was published, a rumor spread through the workplace safety and health community that OSHA was axing the VPP. It was helped along by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis’s comment that OSHA will turn its energies from voluntary programs to enforcement.

At the ASSE annual meeting in San Antonio in late June, acting OSHA boss Jordan Barab told attendees: “Let me be clear: We are not eliminating the Voluntary Protection Programs. We are not saying companies who truly excel in health and safety don't deserve recognition. They do. Nor are we saying that strong partnerships with employers can't benefit workers and companies and OSHA. They can.

“But the days of signing companies into VPP programs or Alliances just to fill arbitrary goals, and the days of promoting Alliances as a replacement for standards, are over.”

To further quell fears that the VPP was on the road to extinction, Solis and Barab both recently sent letters to welcome attendees to the 25th Annual National Voluntary Program Participants Association (VPPPA) Conference in San Antonio, Texas, August 24-27, 2009.

According to a VPPPA press release, in Secretary Solis’ letter, which will be published in the conference’s Onsite Program, she wrote, “Although the Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) have grown and diversified since their inception in 1982, VPP’s original intent has not changed – to promote effective safety and health program management by recognizing employers and workers who have achieved outstanding safety and health performance. This conference, with its emphasis on participatory workshops and information sharing, is a logical and valuable extension of VPP and its spirit of labor-management-OSHA cooperation. The connections forged, the questions raised, and the knowledge shared at this conference all play a pivotal role in the overarching goal of keeping workers safe and healthy.”

In Barab’s letter to VPPPA conference attendees, he wrote, “This conference demonstrates your commitment to safety and health excellence at worksites across our nation. Your efforts remind OSHA that voluntary continuous improvement leads to safer and healthier workplaces. I commend you for your success in creating effective partnerships that enable workers, management, and government to respond cooperatively to emerging health and safety risks.”

Barab will address attendees as one of the featured keynote speakers during the opening on Monday, August 24, 2009. He will be attending the conference from Sunday, August 23, to Tuesday, August 25, and committed to participate in the labor and management open forum and interact with conference attendees throughout, according to the VPPPA press release.