An eight-month investigation reveals 80 employee deaths at companies in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) between 2000 and 2008. What may be even more shocking: 65% of these companies have maintained their VPP status.
VPP is OSHA’s voluntary program that recognizes employers that have implemented safety and health management systems and maintain injury and illness rates below national averages for their respective industries. There are more than 2,400 facilities in the program today.
The program has been under more scrutiny since 2009 when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that called VPP’s effectiveness into question. OSHA administrator David Michaels has floated ideas for cutting funding to the program or asking participants to pay.
Now, the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News has published the results of its eight-month investigation into the program. Key findings:
- Since 2000, at least 80 workers have died at VPP sites. In 47 cases, OSHA inspectors found serious safety violations and tragedies that could have been averted.
- At least 65% of VPP workplaces where a fatality occurred remain in the program today.
- As the program tripled in size between 2000 and 2008, OSHA cut the number of staffers overseeing it and weakened requirements for membership.
- Little evidence exists that the almost 30-year-old program actually improves safety at member locations.
VPP sites are exempt from programmed OSHA inspections, such as those that target workplaces within high-injury industries.
However, if there is a fatality, three or more injuries requiring hospitalization, a formal complaint or a referral from another agency, OSHA inspects the VPP site.
OSHA says injury and illness rates at VPP sites on average are 50% lower than industry averages, a statistic also heralded by the independent VPP Participants’ Association (VPPPA).
But in its report, the GAO found injury rates “may not be the best measure of performance.” Why? Because at more than a third of the sites the GAO examined, there were discrepancies between the site’s self-reported and verified rates.
Speaking of the VPPPA, its chief, David Layne, spoke to iWatch as part of its investigation. He said VPPPA doesn’t track fatalities at VPP facilities. Asked if 80 deaths over a nine-year period was an acceptable number, he said he didn’t know. (Shouldn’t the answer to that question automatically be “no”?)
Is VPP broken beyond repair? Should it be entirely scrapped? New York University law professor Cynthia Estlund, who has studied programs like VPP, told iWatch that these types of “regulated self-regulation” programs are here to stay. However, she recommends that “no company [be] insulated from scrutiny.”
Estlund says these types of programs tip very easily into “non-enforcement.” One way to stop that: taking tough action at VPP sites where serious problems occur. Other experts interviewed by iWatch echoed that point.
A note: Since publishing its reports on VPP on its website, local newspapers and radio and TV stations have picked up on the iWatch investigation. Suddenly, there is more focus in local communities where potentially problematic VPP facilities are located.
Should VPP companies that experience incidents with fatalities, injuries that require hospitalization or serious property damage be excluded from the program, at least temporarily? Should they be allowed back in, and if so, under what circumstances? Let us know what you think in the Comments Box below.