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Voluntary OSHA program at crossroads

Funding cut, focus on enforcement said to put program at risk


WASHINGTON—An initiative by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that encourages employers to establish health and safety programs could fall victim to the federal agency's emphasis on enforcement, say backers of legislation introduced to preserve OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program.

The 18-year-old program encourages cooperation between employers, employees and OSHA by recognizing workplaces that conduct safety risk assessments, mitigate hazards and maintain a record of reduced losses, supporters say.

More than 2,300 employers, including many with unionized worksites, now participate in the program, OSHA documents show.

But President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget includes no funding for the program, said a spokesman for Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the ranking member of the Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Sen. Enzi introduced S.B. 3257 in April, which would codify and make permanent the Voluntary Protection Program within OSHA. The bill remains in committee.

Simultaneously, the senator introduced a budget amendment that would restore $3.1 million of funding in the Senate's fiscal 2011 budget. The amendment has passed out of the Senate Budget Committee, to the Senate floor the spokesman added.

Employer and safety organizations that fear the funding and OSHA personnel who oversee the program are being shifted to enforcement duties are supporting the senator's efforts.

“We don't want funding for VPP to be cherry-picked for other programs within the department,” Sen. Enzi's spokesman said. “The fear is it will be left on the cutting room floor permanently given the detractors that are out there.”

Some, but not all, labor representatives are of the opinion that the program's resources could be better spent enforcing OSHA regulations among employers that are likely to flout safety rules than on large employers that are more likely to have safety programs, sources said.

A May 2009 Government Accounting Office report concluded OSHA lacks internal controls to assure companies maintain the necessary criteria to qualify for the program.

“As a result, some sites that no longer met the definition of an exemplary worksite remained in the VPP,” the report said.

But supporters say VPP status encourages companies to establish safe workplaces and reduce injuries.

The program has become “a political football” that is “getting kicked around a bit,” said Dave Heidorn, manager of government affairs and policy for the American Society of Safety Engineers in Des Plaines, Ill.

Convincing upper management at large corporations to fund health and safety programs and then maintain that commitment often is a tough sell for safety professionals, particularly with lean budgets, Mr. Heidorn said.

The positive recognition companies garner from achieving OSHA VPP status often helps ASSE members convince management to maintain the programs in the long run, Mr. Heidorn added.

“In the big picture, it really helps companies focus and keep attention on safety” and go beyond minimum OSHA compliance requirements, Mr. Heidorn said.

In April, Topeka, Kan.-based Westar Energy Inc. said a third power plant that it operates received a “star” designation from OSHA, the agency's highest VPP compliance recognition.

The electric utility company first pursued the program about eight years ago. Another company then mentored Westar in safety practices and obtaining OSHA VPP status, said Randall Bickford, Westar manager of safety and compliance.

“Frankly, we needed some improvements in safety,” Mr. Bickford said.

Since then, Westar has reduced its workers compensation losses because program participation requires a company to log a “total case incident rate” that is 50% below the national average for its industry, Mr. Bickford said.

OSHA did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

The Department of Labor's fiscal 2011 budget seeks $14 million to hire more OSHA compliance officers on top of 100 new positions funded by the 2010 budget, according to the National Assn. of Manufacturers' Coalition for Workplace Safety.

Washington-based NAM has said it supports S.B. 3257 because of concerns that OSHA is shifting resources from the Voluntary Workplace Program, which NAM considers a success, to emphasize enforcement.

Continuing the program could result in thousands of additional employers implementing safety programs that exceed minimum OSHA compliance standards, said Michael Hayslip, executive director of the Dayton, Ohio-based Voluntary Protection Program Assn. for Construction.

But employer participation requires they make a financial and time commitment, Mr. Hayslip said.

Those employers may decline to commit their resources if they think the program is “wilting on the vine,” Mr. Hayslip said.