OSHA Looking to Strengthen Voluntary Protection Programs: What This Means & Why It Matters

Since the early 1980s, OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs have been in place to help protect employee health and safety while on the job. Developed as part of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970, the VPP is designed to recognize the efforts of employers and employees to make workplaces as safe as possible.

As the name implies, the VPP is a voluntary program. Under the guidelines, OSHA sets the criteria for excellence in health and safety, and invites companies to apply for evaluation against those criteria. Upon evaluation, sites can then achieve one of three designations: Star, Merit, or Demonstration. A Star designation recognizes exemplary achievement in occupational health and safety. A Merit indicates that the site has achieved good health and safety policies and practices but must do additional work to achieve a Star rating. And Demonstration indicates that a business has an effective safety program that is different from what OSHA requires, but is still worthy of consideration. Businesses that are rated Demonstration are typically used by OSHA as research sites, allowing them to test various approaches to workplace safety.

VPP: Where It Stands Today

Statistically speaking, the VPP has been effective in reducing workplace injuries and illnesses. According to OSHA, on average a VPP work site has 52 percent fewer Days Away Restricted or Transferred than other work sites. They attribute this reduction to the concerted efforts of both leadership and employees to maintain an environment in accordance with the VPP guidelines. Not only does this increase productivity, but it also reduces costs considerably.

However, the VPP assit stands only applies to a very small number of organizations. Currently, only about 2,200 work sites and 1 million workers are part of the program. In contrast, OSHA as a whole covers 130 million workers at eight million work sites. The number of work sites included in the VPP increased considerably during President George W. Bush’s administration, despite concerns about the integrity of the program and whether it was measuring the right things and presenting an accurate picture of work-site safety. Under President Barack Obama’s administration, the focus on the VPP was less on expanding the program to include more work sites, but rather on how to ensure that the program was working as intended, and that sites were being evaluated effectively.

President Donald Trump’s administration is looking to improve the VPP by addressing both issues. OSHA is currently holding a series of public meetings to gather comments on the VPP and how to strengthen the program. Not only does OSHA want to maintain the program, but it wants to increase the number of work sites involved and improve the management of the program to ensure that evaluations are handled appropriately, reduce the backlog of applications and re-applications, and maintain the integrity of the program.

Topics Up for Discussion

The public meetings relating to growing and strengthening the VPP are to be focused on several key topics, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The three major areas of focus will include:

  • The overall process of the VPP and the flow of applications and evaluations
  • Corporate/long-term participant involvement
  • Special government employee activities

These topics are among the key issues being raised during the period of public comment on the program, which ends on September 15. In short, the agency is looking for ideas on how it can not only increase participation in the VPP, but keep companies engaged in the program and leverage the VPP program itself to create safer, healthier workplaces.

Some critics of the VPP note that OSHA is not addressing the most important issues. For starters, they argue, the VPP is too focused on rewarding and recognizing work sites that are already meeting OSHA guidelines, when the agency should be helping work sites that don’t qualify to improve. In addition, there are lingering concerns about how the program is conducted, and internal inefficiencies that are harming the integrity of the program; for instance, there are a number of work sites that are part of the program that shouldn’t be, but haven’t been removed due to inconsistencies in evaluations and internal controls.

Still, the Department of Labor believes that the VPP is an important program, and has budgeted for its expansion. While it remains to be seen what changes will come from the stakeholder meetings and reevaluation of the program, many occupational health and safety professionals believe that the program does have some merit, in the sense that it helps work sites know what to work toward.

As we learn more about creating safer workplaces, it only makes sense that the guidelines for excellence are adjusted to reflect modern realities. It’s also important that the program maintains its integrity, so that those work sites that are involved can serve as examples and leaders for others, creating better, safer, and healthier environments for everyone.

Author: Claire Stewart

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