I just returned from the 25th Annual National Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association Inc. (VPPPA) conference in San Antonio last week and it is clear that the pendulum of direction at OSHA is changing rapidly. In the opening session, Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, Jordan Barab talked about the current challenges OSHA faces and the changes that are forthcoming. The message was very clear that OSHA’s role in the near future will emphasize increased inspections and more aggressive enforcement rather than relying on cooperative programs such as the VPP. Barab indicated that nearly 200 new federal OSHA inspectors will be brought on staff and that assessed fines and penalties will be higher in the future. Indications are that the administration will also attempt to get legislation passed criminalizing managers whose employees are killed or seriously injured, making them felons subject to imprisonment.
Barab’s comments come on the heels of a report released by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) last spring that takes issue with OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program. The report questions OSHA and Regional VPP staff’s ability to verify that internal controls are sufficiently robust to ensure that only qualified worksites participate in the VPP. The report further states that “OSHA has not developed the proper goals or measures to assess the performance of VPP”. OSHA seems to have adopted the old British Navy adage which says “People tend to respect what they expect you will inspect”.
A follow-up VPPPA panel session given by four of OSHA’s Directorate personnel announced that OSHA will begin conducting a comprehensive evaluation of VPP safety and health systems beginning as early as September.
These reviews will seek to verify if proper oversight and controls are in place and that appropriate follow-up actions are taken in response to incidents, such as fatalities and serious injuries, at VPP sites. The panel indicated that OSHA would check to see if VPP companies are “cooking the books” and if so appropriate actions will be taken with regards to the VPP program in response to recommendations made in the GAO report.