At a Workforce Protections Subcommittee hearing today, members explored the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), which recognizes employers with exemplary safety management programs and below average injury rates for their industry. The program exempts participants from regularly scheduled inspections, and there are advocates for its expansion. However, the program's efficacy and OSHA's ability to expand the program while also conducting effective workplace inspections and investigating workplace-related whistleblower complaints were thrown into question at today's hearing.
"The Government Accountability Office has cautioned that growth in VPP could have unintended effects on resources needed to protect workers at the millions of worksites outside of VPP," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), senior Democratic member on the Workforce Protections Subcommittee. "The problem is that federal OSHA only has enough resources to inspect each worksite once every 131 years. We know from peer reviewed studies conducted by one of our witnesses, that when inspections are conducted, they not only prevent workers from getting hurt, they also save employers billions of dollars through reduced workers' compensation costs."
In addition, in 2009, the GAO found that OSHA's internal controls were inadequate to ensure that only qualified worksites participate in the VP; OSHA did not ensure that its regional offices consistently monitored sites' injury and illness rates; and OSHA had not conducted studies demonstrating the effectiveness of OSHA.
"If the integrity of this program is compromised, it doesn't matter how many participants the program has or how fast it is growing. Over the past years, unfortunately, the program has faced very difficult challenges in this area," said Jordan Barab, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA. "Our challenge, therefore, is to maintain an active, quality VPP while also providing assistance to small businesses, help for vulnerable workers, support to enable workers to exercise their rights under the law, and an active enforcement program that focuses on the worst offenders -- the companies that don't get the message, continue to ignore the law, and needlessly put workers' lives in jeopardy,"
"As the GAO has emphasized, it is crucial that rigorous evaluations be conducted for voluntary programs as well as enforcement," said David I. Levine, a professor at University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "OSHA reports that VPP participants have injury rates far below their industry average. However, this encouraging news is not convincing evidence of whether VPP causes improvements in workplace safety because having an injury rate below the industry average is a requirement both to join and to remain in the VPP."
Dr. Levine co-authored a recent study in Science showing that workplace injury claims dropped 9.4 percent at businesses in the four years following a randomized California OSHA inspection when compared with those who were not inspected. On average, these businesses also saved 26 percent on workers' compensation costs compared to similar, non-inspected companies -- providing an estimated $20 billion in direct and indirect benefits nationwide.