No shortage of ideas from OSHA staff to improve oversight of agency’s Voluntary Protection Program

As first reported yesterday by Chris Hamby at the Center for Public Integrity’s IWatch, an internal report on the agency’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), submitted in November 2011 to OSHA chief David Michaels is now public.

Over the months, I’d made my own inquiries to OSHA’s public affairs office wondering when the public might be able to read this report.  I never received a response, but understand it appeared on OSHA’s website on Friday, August 17.  Thanks to Hamby for bringing it to our attention.

OSHA’s VPP dates back to 1983, and recognizes worksites that, in OSHA’s words “demonstrate of commitment to excellence in safety and health.”  About 2,400 worksites have the VPP designation.  As IWatch’s Hamby and others have written however, serious questions have been raised about the integrity of the program and whether all VPP sites genuinely deserve a “model workplace” designation.    As Hamby reported

“Since 2000, more than 80 workers have died at workplaces in OSHA’s VPP.  …In more than half of these cases, the mandatory inspection triggered by the fatal accident found serious safety violations.  Yet these deaths rarely led to serious consequences for the company, and OSHA has seldom used its authority to boot a site from the program.”

I’ve asked that question myself over the last few years, and I asked it again after reading about the December 2011 death of Kristine Griffing, 52.  She was killed in a 150 ton shear press at the Eaton Corporation’s Kearney, Nebraska facility.  It’s an OSHA VPP site.

OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary Jordan Barab told Hamby that fatalities at VPP sites was a key focus area for the internal review team.   Now that their November 2011 is public, we can read what they told their bosses on the matter:

“The [OSHA] VPP program manager should be required to conduct a thorough evaluation of a VPP site’s safety and health management system after any significant enforcement activity, particularly one associated with a work-related fatality, catastrophe, or whenever a willful citation is issued. The purpose of the review is to determine if the site should continue to participate in VPP or be terminated.”

The team went further, discussing

“whether there should be a designation of “Inactive” in these instances.  Inactive essentially would suspend the company from the VPP until an OSHA investigation was concluded.

The OSHA team deserves credit for making these two important recommendations.  A worksite that receives a special government designation as exemplary should withstand even greater scrutiny if a fatal work-related injury or other serious event occurs there.  The timing of the internal OSHA team’s recommendations came too late to change OSHA’s course of action at Kristine Griffing’s VPP worksite.   Nine months later, I wonder what’s the status of the team’s 34 recommendations?  OSHA’s Barab told Hamby in a written statement:

“This report will serve as a valuable road map for the agency as we continue to address issues present in VPP.  In general, we agree with most of the findings of the report, and have already or will be implementing a number of substantive changes to the program based on the recommendations included.”

And the agency offers this vague response on its website:

“While several of the recommendations have already been implemented, OSHA is in the process of determining which recommendations will be adopted and when.  It is likely that many of them can be implemented in relatively short to medium time frames (by March 31, 2013) and that a few will take more time to implement appropriately.”

How about a list of the recommendations with a notation indicating those that “have already been implemented”?

Since OSHA’s top officials have had the internal review team’s report for nine months, how much more time is needed to determine which recommendations will be adopted or not?  Some, like these, are pretty straightforward:

  • Focus the Directorate of Cooperative and State Programs review on the technical details of the initial approval report and bring repeated problems to the attention of the appropriate Regional Administrator.
  • Include a Merit finding under Section 11(c) of the Act [anti-discrimination provision] as a reason for automatic termination from VPP.
  • Require OSHA staff conducting recordkeeping reviews for VPP to receive recordkeeping audit training.

I’m glad that OSHA finally decided to make public this internal report and post it on the agency’s website.  I’ve been especially eager to read it knowing it was prepared almost exclusively by OSHA field staff.  It’s one thing to have the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct an investigation (which they have (here, here.))  It’s quite another when performed by the right combination of insiders who’ll ask the probing questions and shed light on day-to-day operational problems.   There’s quite a bit of that in this report, too.  For example, the reviewers comment on the five policy memos issued in response to a 2009 GAO report:

“The use of memoranda…creates undue confusion and leads to inconsistent application [of program changes.]  …on occasion these memoranda offer contradictory guidance that leaves those trying to use them confused. …some guidance in Memorandum #3 supersedes Memorandum #1, while other parts of Memorandum #3 supplement Memorandum #1.  ..Individuals responsible for implementing the VPP, particularly in the field, should not find it necessary to navigate through a maze of unclear, contradictory governing and guidance documents.”

The internal team minced no words when characterizing the annual evaluation report required of VPP participants:

“Currently the evaluations often contain limited, redundant, outdated information and pro forma text that is the same year-after-year.  The ability of some regions to effectively use this information is hampered by the sheer volume of evaluations to review.  The annual evaluation process does not appear to achieve the results intended. These reports will be more useful if they are modified to collect critical performance information. …The team believes the annual evaluation report needs to be modified to focus on critical and useful performance information as well as data OSHA might be able to use to measure VPP effectiveness.”

With respect to measuring a VPP site’s effectiveness, the internal team noted:

“OSHA has traditionally only captured two lagging indicators to support the success of VPP in the form of injury and illness rates.”  And, it is the only “data is captured in any systematic way by the
Agency,” for VPP sites.   …Additional outcome measures should be captured to support the effectiveness of comprehensive safety and management systems.”

and

“The team feels that VPP participant leading indicators should be systematically reported and tracked by the Agency to measure proactive efforts being taken by VPP participants to address safety and health hazards and minimize risk at participating sites.”  Some of the leading indicators the team identified include: “numbers of safety and health hazards identified,” “increases in the number of near misses captured and addressed,” and “number of employees involved in safety committees.”

The also describe some (embarrassing to read) problems with their VPP data systems called VADS:

“The [regional offices] are allowed to view VADS but they are not allowed to input data.  Currently, the data is inaccurate. …a search request for the number of Corporate VPP sites did not provide accurate information. …a search for the number of active sites found that the regions’ count of the numbers of Mobile Workforce, Demonstration, and Federal Agency sites significantly differed from the numbers reflected in VADS.  …The reapproval data is also inaccurate. The actual reapproval is effective the date the Regional Administrator signs a notification letter to the site; however, VADS tracks the date the Assistant Secretary signs a letter sent to the company.  At times, the dates of the RA and the Assistant Secretary’s letters vary by several months. As a consequence, when the National Office runs a report of overdue reapprovals, it does not match the status of reapprovals identified in the regions.  As a consequence of the unreliability of VADS data, most regions had to develop their own tracking systems.”

OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary Jordan Barab said the internal review team’s report “will serve as a valuable road map.”  Although they’ve had the roadmap for nine months, we don’t know yet whether agency leaders are relying heavily on their staff’s expert work and forging ahead to reform the program.  Or, if they are nervous about upsetting VPP companies and their trade association, who often run to friends on Capitol Hill when suggestions are made to upgrade the program.

 

 

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