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Funding challenges hamper OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program efforts

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The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is considering ways to revamp and boost participation in its Voluntary Protection Program as it pursues a more collaborative relationship with employers, but funding remains a challenge.

Agency officials heard stakeholder comments on potential changes to the program, which focuses on employers who have implemented effective safety and health management systems and maintain injury and illness rates below national averages for their respective industries, during a public meeting in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

The program started in 1982 with 11 participants and peaked at 1,720 federal program participants in 2010, but has declined every year since then, with the current number of participants standing at 1,395 as of April 30, 2017, according to OSHA.

“One of the key aspects of VPP has always been the effective collaboration between OSHA and industry working together to increase safety and to ensure that at the end of the day everyone returns home safe,” said Tom Galassi, OSHA’s acting deputy assistant secretary.

But compliance assistance funding for activities such as the Voluntary Protection Program remains a challenge, he said. In fiscal years 2015 and 2016, the agency received $68.4 million for such activities, down from $76.4 million in 2012.

“The current model for VPP is not sustainable with resource realities,” Mr. Galassi said.

Both employer and union supporters of the program recognize the budget constraints the agency is operating under.

“We realize OSHA is strapped for resources,” said Don Johnson, a Roxana, Illinois-based employee of oil refinery Phillips 66 and a member of the board of directors of the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants Association Inc. in Falls Church, Virginia. “I’m not here to hammer OSHA.”

But as unions try to woo employers and employees to participate in the program, it is critical to demonstrate its legitimacy, which means that when organizations apply to the program, application reviews and inspections need to occur as quickly as possible, he said. One way to do that, Mr. Johnson said, is to spur increased involvement in inspections by special government employees — industry employees who work alongside OSHA during Voluntary Protection Program onsite evaluations.

“They have willing participants,” Mr. Johnson said. “I don’t think we’ve taken the SGE piece as far as it can go.”

“I just think the program needs to be reenergized,” said Donovan Marks, general manager, human resources and safety at Charlotte, North Carolina-based Nucor Corp. “I think there are a lot of good things with the program that can continue. There are other resources we can tap into that would not be a burden to OSHA. We just need to be creative and think about those types of resources.”

But the first thing OSHA needs to do is commit to and promote the program, including making it easier to find program information on the website, he said.

Margaret Seminario, director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO in Washington, said the program works, but she has seen “employers try to use it as a way to try to get out of inspections and blow off their collective bargaining responsibilities.

“Unless the program has integrity first and is serving the interest of the workers and the employers and also serving a larger interest quite frankly, you’re not going to get the kind of support that would be needed to enhance it,” she said. “The money is less in every area. (OSHA’s) budget is taking a big hit, going back to the levels of 10 years ago.”

She also questioned why major corporations should be benefiting from the program’s limited resources.

“I do think we have to take a hard look at use of taxpayer dollars to support safety and health efforts of major corporations, which have the money to do this on their own,” Ms. Seminario said. “It is hard to explain why major corporations need my taxpayer dollars to certify their safety and health programs when there are others out there that don’t have the same kind of resources and need the assistance.”

“Big companies and corporations maybe shouldn’t have to have taxpayer resources used all the time to do one of those audits,” agreed Ken Bogler, U.S. health and safety leader for General Electric Co., which is a member of OSHA’s VPP Corporate initiative, based in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Public comments on potential changes to the program are due Sept. 15.