An OSHA official confirms to the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) that a “top-to-bottom review” of the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) has been completed and recommendations on changes are being considered.
The No. 2 official at OSHA, Jordan Barab, tells CPI that a task force consisting of OSHA officials has submitted its report which is now being reviewed.
CPI reported previously that since 2000, more than 80 workers have died at VPP workplaces. In more than half of the cases, OSHA inspections following the fatalities found serious safety violations.
Despite that, VPP companies with worker fatalities aren’t often kicked out of the program, according to CPI.
Responding to fatalities at VPP sites is one of the first things the task force looked at, Barab told CPI. Barab said OSHA wants to make sure all the participants in VPP deserve to be there.
The report contains recommendations which OSHA and its legal staff are now considering.
Even before releasing the report’s findings, CPI reports OSHA has taken some actions:
- American Packaging Corp. withdrew from VPP after OSHA told the company it was considering kicking it out of VPP because of a fatal explosion at its Columbus, WI, plant, and
- OSHA recently acknowledged its database of deaths at VPP sites was incomplete and that it had updated the list to include more fatalities identified by CPI’s investigative reports.
A recent example
On Nov. 30, 2010, Julio Colon-Figueroa was found lying on the ground next to a large piece of metal and bleeding from the head at Trinity Marine in Ashland City, TN.
As he was being taken to a local hospital, he died.
In 2009, the location earned a VPP Star from OSHA for outstanding safety performance and processes.
However, Colon-Figueroa’s death was the third work-related fatality at Trinity in 13 years. Two other workers were injured in incidents in 1998 and 2002.
OSHA VPP Star status exempts companies from the agency’s programmed inspections.
Following its investigation into the 2010 fatality, OSHA issued Trinity one serious violation of the General Duty Clause. OSHA said Trinity didn’t furnish a place of employment which was free from recognized hazards that caused or were likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees. Specifically, employees were exposed to struck-by and crushing hazards, according to the agency. Trinity was fined $7,000, the maximum for one serious violation.
Trinity has appealed the citation to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
Meanwhile, OSHA’s Web page, “Industries in the VPP Federal and State Plans as of 11/30/2011,” lists Trinity Marine’s Ashland location as in the program.
While Barab said OSHA was looking into what to do when a VPP location has a worker death, this case brings up an additional question: If OSHA has issued a fine but the matter is still under appeal, should the company be able to stay in the VPP?
Walking a fine line?
This fall, CPI first reported that a number of employee deaths at VPP locations hadn’t been recorded in OSHA’s VPP database.
Safety News Alert (SNA) noted that just days before CPI delivered its report, OSHA administrator David Michaels told attendees at the National Safety Council’s annual congress in Philadelphia that VPP was a “great program.”
In 2010, Michaels was calling for VPP to be funded through user fees paid by participating companies instead of federal government dollars.
When SNA asked Michaels about the apparent change in message from one year to the next, Michaels noted that funding for VPP had not changed.
In between his 2010 and 2011 statements, Republicans took over the U.S. House and gained more seats, although not a majority, in the Senate.
Michaels and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis had previously said that, with limited federal funds, they’d rather spend more on enforcement than voluntary assistance programs like VPP. In response to that, after the 2010 election, members of Congress introduced bills to make VPP a permanent part of OSHA.
The message to OSHA was clear: Don’t mess with a program (VPP) that many businesses liked.
It now appears that while OSHA was continuing to fund VPP at its usual levels, it was also investigating the situations that led to 80 fatalities at VPP sites.
If OSHA releases the results of its own investigation next year, it will set up an interesting debate for what appears to be hotly contested presidential and Congressional elections in 2012. Here are the possibilities:
- OSHA could declare VPP to be broken and move to scrap the program. This doesn’t appear to be the direction the agency is going in.
- OSHA could sit on the results of its own investigation until after the elections, hoping not to fan the flames of Republican lawmakers who have declared the current status of the agency as anti-business, or
- OSHA could take a middle ground approach, calling for significant changes in the program such as canceling the exemption VPP sites have from programmed OSHA inspections, increasing the requirements for companies to qualify for the program or requiring a financial contribution from participating companies.
What do you think about this situation? Does OSHA need to make significant changes to the VPP? Let us know what you think in the comments below.