Barab Sent the Wrong Message

The Voluntary Protection Programs Participants' Association, Inc. (VPPPA) recently held its 25th Annual Conference in San Antonio, Texas. Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Jordan Barab addressed 2,800 attendees at the Opening General Session on Aug. 25 . Barab began his speech with a statement that, while OSHA was in the process of examining the VPP program in light of the GAO report, there were no plans at this time to eliminate VPP (emphasis from the voice inflection was on no plans to eliminate VPP).

While the comment drew rousing applause from the audience, I’m not sure that the average attendee understood the carefully chosen words or “political speak” that they were listening to. The acting Assistant Secretary then went on to explain the need to examine the VPP program in terms of its impact on limited OSHA resources and the impact that the rapid growth of the program over the last eight years has had on quality. He also stated that the general schedule inspection exemption provided to VPP Star sites needed to be examined and rethought.

"We will thoroughly review the VPP Program to determine its effectiveness, as well as review the programs' roles in helping the agency promote the safety and health of America's workers," said Barab.

Perhaps what is most insightful for the future of OSHA partnership approaches, such as the VPP program, is not what was said in the speech but what was not. In an internal agency memorandum to all OSHA Regional Administrators and Directorate Heads dated Aug. 3, 2009, subject: Improving Administration of the Voluntary Protection Programs, Acting Assistant Secretary Barb outlined a number of changes to internal OSHA procedures dealing with managing the VPP program. I believe the changes outlined show the future direction of OSHA in regards to how the current administration values partnerships. The major policy changes outlined are:

  • Strict adherence to the procedures outlined in CSP 03-01-003
  • Restricted communication with VPP applicant/participant regarding OSHA VPP recommendations
  • Responding to and documenting follow up actions to fatality/significant events on VPP sites
  • Required actions when participant’s 3-year TCIR and/or DART rate exceeds VPP requirements
  • Procedures to follow when a VPP participant’s SHMS no longer meets VPP requirements
  • Review and verification of annual VPP participant self evaluations and injury and illness data
  • Use of Medical Access Orders
  • Timeliness of onsite VPP evaluations
  • Regional VPP audits
  • VPP records and documentation

After reading the memo one cannot miss a distinct "chilling" effect. The sense of working together in partnership is lost when open, frank communication is no longer authorized to take place between the OSHA evaluation team and the VPP site. This will affect perhaps the biggest positive impact that OSHA has on VPP sites, and thus the safety of their workers. It is the open communication, and trust that is built that forges the partnership. It is in this collaborative environment that management, labor, and OSHA work together to deal with the specific site issues at hand and forge creative, responsible solutions for them. Rather, it appears that VPP reviews will become strictly an audit function, where OSHA inspects and audits and then later informs the site on whether they passed or not.

As a 26-year OSHA veteran whose experience included that of an Area Director, Assistant Regional Administrator, and both an Acting Deputy and Acting Regional Administrator, I can comfortably state that the best worker protection that I have ever witnessed has been on OSHA VPP Star sites. As much as I have always been and always will be a strong supporter of OSHA enforcement, enforcement only effects a limited amount of change. VPP, on the other hand, embodies best practices in the deployment and operation of safety management systems and safety cultures, which are the foundation that takes a site from the day-to-day struggles of maintaining compliance to one that experiences continuous improvement and world-class performance. While VPP sites are not perfect, as demonstrated by some sites experiencing fatal incidents, what sets VPP sites apart from an average site is their reaction to these significant events.

What is happening now -- which has happened every time that there has been an significant administration change -- is OSHA's approach to worker safety swings 180 degrees. What I have yet to experience is an administration who has taken a truly balanced approach. Enforcement, training, education, consultation, and cooperative programs are not, nor should be, mutually exclusive. While the current swing to strict enforcement is predictable, what is sad is that the people who get lost in the debate are the American workers.

Editor's note: We sent this column to OSHA's public affairs office on Sept. 8 and invited Assistant Secretary Barab to respond. No response was provided by Oct. 1.

Posted by Jerry Ryan on Oct 05, 2009