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OSHA's voluntary protection program encourages safety partnerships

Posted On: Apr. 14, 2016 12:00 AM CST

OSHA's voluntary protection program encourages safety partnerships

Electronics manufacturer Shermco Industries' Irving, Texas, campus was recognized in 2015 by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Voluntary Protection 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.

Kyle Kirkpatrick, director, environmental health and safety and a certified safety professional with Shermco, spoke with Business Insurance Senior Editor Gloria Gonzalez about benefits of the VPP program, as well as the tremendous team effort and commitment that companies must have to achieve and maintain VPP status. Edited excerpts follow.

Q: What does participation in the VPP entail?

A: It turns the onus of leading safety back over to employees, the people who have to work day in and day out in the hazardous environments and they suffer the exposures. It allows them to have a voice in their own safety.

The way you get answers to the problems in your organization is you go to where the work happens because the employees that do the work are the ones that have the answers. It opens management's eyes up to the fact that employees actually do know what's safe and what's not safe, and we just may not have been listening to their ideas and their initiatives. You still have to have management's leadership and commitment behind that because there's a lot of effort that goes into that.

Q: What other benefits do you see from participating in the program aside from the employee engagement in the safety process?

A: It opens opportunities for better business because you're partnering with organizations that value safety, and safety is a core principle to them instead of just lip service. We've had the opportunity to work with some new clients in the last year that prior to that when they would send their pre-qualification requests out and there would be a question about VPP, organizations that aren't VPP wouldn't not have an opportunity to bid for that work or if they did have an opportunity to bid and all estimates were equal across the board moneywise, then they would look at who has the best safety program.

Q: Are there any disadvantages to participating in VPP?

A: The only disadvantage that I've ever experienced is OSHA comes in during the audit process, and they will find everything that you never thought of that could be wrong with your organization. But they will also work with you hand-in-hand if they recognize that you're serious about becoming a VPP site to improve those opportunities and to make your organization a better and safer company.

Q: So if OSHA identifies a hazard during these audits, they would not automatically cite you as an employer?

A: Yes, let's say they are auditing my facility and see that a machine guard not in place, they would advise me that I need to put a machine guard in place. If I couldn't correct it during the audit, then it would go on what they call an action item list, and they set those for either 90 days or six months. I have to show proof that we took care of that action. There's no penalty. There's no recourse against us unless, of course, we chose not to make the corrections.

Q: Participating in VPP doesn't guarantee that you wouldn't ever be cited by OSHA, correct?

A: That is correct. Being a VPP member guarantees against the regularly scheduled inspections that OSHA conducts or tries to conduct each year, but it does not protect you against an employee complaint or a third-party complaint about a hazard. It doesn't protect against the new OSHA reporting requirements for injuries.

Q: How would you describe the interactions with OSHA as a VPP member?

A: It's a partnership. It really is. They're there to help you. They're there to mentor you and guide you on the path of having a safer work environment. You know the old adage, “OSHA's out to get me and they're out with their ticket books.” That doesn't exist with VPP. I've never experienced that myself, and I've dealt with them for many years.

Q: What should other employers know about VPP?

A: It's not a short-term fix. It's a long-term commitment. It's a reorganization of your company, and if your top management is not committed to provide the support and the effort to your lowest level employee out there to be safe and to implement the processes that are necessary to be safe, then VPP shouldn't be your goal.