Update below (7/8/2011)

Just a few months after the Obama Administration took office, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a scathing report on OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). The program is supposed to recognize workplaces with exceptional safety programs, but GAO’s investigators identified participant worksites that had multiple fatalities and gross violations of safety standards. The late Senator Kennedy said

“GAO’s report makes clear that OSHA has strayed too far from its core mission of protecting the safety and health of workers on the job. The agency has spent too much time seeking voluntary compliance from employers and too little time enforcing the law.”

Senator Patty Murray echoed that sentiment, saying a

“hands-off approach to a voluntary enforcement program is a recipe for disaster”

and Congressman George Miller (D-CA) added the GAO report

“only confirms what many had already known–the Bush administration’s misdirected reliance on voluntary programs siphoned scarce resources that were needed for enforcement of our nation’s health and safety laws.”

The young Obama Administration’s OSHA promised to implement reforms to the VPP, including internal controls to ensure that only qualified worksites receive the OSHA designation as an exemplary workplace, and refining the measures to assess the program’s effectiveness.

Beginning today, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and PBS‘s Need to Know will be reporting on their 8-month investigation of OSHA’s VPP. CPI’s series “Model Workplaces, Imperiled Workers” commences with a description of an explosion at a Tropicana juice plant in Florida in 2005. Two employees received serious burn injuries. Despite this worksites designation by OSHA as a model worksite for safety, federal inspectors looking into the blast learned that workers were told to ‘throw safety out the window’ and get the work done.

The CPI and PBS investigators will profile more of these cases, and provide insight from workplace safety experts who question the criteria used by OSHA to assess the safety performance of these sites. One recently retired OSHA veteran, David DiTommaso, is quoted in CPI’s story:

“If you have an OSHA violation and somebody died as a result of that, I can’t imagine how that company can stay in the program.”

We expect the reporters will attempt to describe the pros and cons of a recognition program sponsored by an enforcement agency.

One of the burn victims from the Tropicana blast, Rob Hackley, still suffers from both his physical and mental injuries. Besides all that, his wife told the CPI reporters:

“The one thing that really still bothers Rob is that they got to keep their ‘Star’ status. If safety really had been a priority, this wouldn’t have happened.”

That’s an issue that federal OSHA needs to answer. We hope to hear from them in these media pieces.

The Need to Know companion television feature will begin airing on Friday, July 8; check you local PBS station’s schedule for the broadcast time.

(Update 7/8/2011: PBS’ Need to Know feature: “Safety matters: danger in the ‘model’ workplace”

Comments

  1. #1 safemba
    July 8, 2011

    Once again expectations of any government administered program are way to high. They can barely write, implement and enforce the regulations.
    What do you expect? No performance evaluation, promotions by seniority, no accountability, etc, etc, etc. Incompetence at the core.
    And it sure is not going to change in a few years. It will take decades no matter who you put in charge.
    Who can ensure safe work places effectively are insurance companies that charge you a premium based on your safety performance not a government agency that issues violations randomly with no strategy.
    Also share holders will make your life miserable if you kill your workers and are in the nightly news.

  2. #2 Anonymous
    July 8, 2011

    I read an article regarding this earlier this week. As a safety advocate and supporter of OSHA cooperative programs such as VPP and SHARP it is troubling to see that specific sites who have had serious lapses in safety, are allowed to continue to operate in VPP let alone retain their ‘STAR’ status. I understand from a practical perspective that all incidents cannot be prevented but steps should have been taken to recognize the known hazards in these situations to avoid catastrophic injuries or losses of life.
    I wonder if PBS will post this documentary online?

  3. #3 Celeste Monforton
    July 8, 2011

    Anonymous,
    Yes, the PBS Need to Know program will be posted on-line. I agree that it is troubling that companies with serious safety lapses are allowed to stay in the program. It dilutes the status for the truly exceptional workplaces.

  4. #4 Derek Spender
    July 11, 2011

    safemba’s solution for too little regulation: even less regulation.

  5. #5 safemba
    July 16, 2011

    Derek
    Who said there was to little regulation? Small companies are being attacked by all ends with new regulations. Safety regs are the least of their problems and most will ignore them. Look at health, energy, sustainable materials, building codes, financial, and the bs list becomes huge.
    For those who work in the non profit and government it is great. But for those of us who have to make a profit to meet payroll it has become a burden and compliance with certain regs is an economic choice. The current administration is just starting to understand that big brother passing all these regs at a time when the economy is down is stagnating the economy. Or maybe now that they want to be re-elected they are pretending to care about the prosperity and well being of small companies and their workers. Regardless of political parties all in DC are useless and looking after their own interests.