The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has released a report (pdf) that evaluates its Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) and makes 34 recommendations for changes and improvement. The report was issued by a VPP Review Team, comprised of OSHA regional and national office members. This team was created in April 2011, and tasked with conducting a review of the VPP and issuing recommendations, largely in response to a critical 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that called for improved VPP oversight and controls.

The VPP is a cooperative program whereby employers with established and effective safety and health systems and comparatively low injury and illness rates are eligible to participate following an extensive OSHA evaluation. In return, participating employers are exempt from OSHA programmed inspections. OSHA re-evaluates VPP participants every three to five years.

While many of the recommendations focused on internal OSHA operation of the VPP, a number of suggestions would make more significant changes to the program itself. Such recommendations include the following:

  • Explore the feasibility of discontinuing the Corporate Program. The VPP Corporate Program is designed for large corporations and federal agencies that are able to demonstrate a strong commitment to health and safety and are able to bring multiple facilities into the VPP. In order to participate, employers “must have established, standardized corporate-level safety and health management systems, effectively implemented organization-wide as well as internal audit/screening processes that evaluate their facilities for safety and health performance.” According to the report, one OSHA region claimed that this program “is not an accurate way to determine the effectiveness of each site’s safety and health management systems.” The National Office stated that corporations failed to bring in the required number of sites within the designated time frame. Therefore, the report suggests that the agency should consider discontinuing the Corporate Program after further examination and discussion.
  • Discontinue the Merit Program. The VPP categorizes participants into three tiers. Employers that demonstrate “exemplary achievement in the prevention and control of occupational safety and health hazards” and show continued “development, implementation and continuous improvement of their safety and health management system” are deemed “Star” VPP participants, while those employers that have developed “good” safety and health management systems but must take additional steps are considered “Merit” VPP members. Employers that operate effective safety and health systems that deviate from established VPP requirements are recognized as “Demonstration” members. According to the report, the second-tier “Merit” program “requires a lot of maintenance and multiple onsite evaluations.” In addition, “those regions with large numbers of VPP sites and re-approvals are often unable to process applications from those companies they believe can only achieve Merit status. This practice can lead to applicants being treated differently from region-to-region.” Therefore, the report recommends ending the Merit Program altogether.
  • Require sites to report and explain significant changes in the previous three years’ data in the annual evaluation. Consider additional modifications to the annual evaluation to improve its usefulness. VPP participants are required to annually evaluate their health and safety programs and submit their written reports to their regional VPP manager or designated person. According to the report, these evaluations often contain “limited, redundant, outdated information.” Among other modifications to these annual evaluations, the report suggests that “to ensure the accuracy of VPP-related injury and illness rates,” participants should provide three years of injury and illness data along with their reports, and should explain any discrepancies.
  • Consider implementing a requirement that participants conduct recordkeeping audits on a regular basis. The report claims that recordkeeping is one of the measures of VPP effectiveness. Prior to instituting this requirement, however, the report recommends that the agency define the processes and procedures to be used by VPP participants.
  • Allow the Regional Administrator (RA) to propose termination for a VPP participant in cases where the RA believes employees’ safety and health are seriously endangered or that a lack of trust has occurred between VPP management and OSHA. The report states that the VPP manual’s policy on withdrawal and termination from the program is confusing and results in inconsistency among the regions. According to the report, there is limited guidance as to when a RA has the authority to terminate an employer’s VPP participation. Therefore, the report recommends that regional administrators be given the clear authority to terminate VPP participation when he or she believes employees’ safety and health are seriously endangered or that a lack of trust has occurred between VPP management and OSHA.
  • Develop a process after a work-related fatality or significant enforcement activity whereby a site is placed in an “Inactive” status pending completion of an investigation. The report claims that several stakeholders suggested that willful violations and/or work-related fatalities were indicative of a deficient safety and health management system. Therefore, the report recommends creating a process that places an employer on “inactive” status pending an OSHA investigation.
  • Include a Merit finding under Section 11(c) of the Act as a reason for automatic termination from VPP. Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act specifically states that "no person shall discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee" because the employee has exercised rights under the Act. This is known as the OSH Act’s anti-retaliation or whistleblower provision. The report explains that the current VPP manual does not address what happens if a program participant is found by the agency to have violated this section. Therefore, the report recommends that an OSHA issuance of a Section 11(c) merit finding at a VPP site should constitute automatic grounds for termination from the program.
  • Continue to allow VPP participants to be exempt from programmed inspections even in industries where OSHA has a National Emphasis Program. This is one of the more positive report recommendations. According to the report, continuing to offer this incentive would conserve agency resources, as it would allow OSHA to focus on sites that have a higher chance of non-compliance.

A detailed discussion of all 34 recommendations and the rationales behind them are outlined in the report.