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By Bruce Rolfsen
After decades of continuous growth, participation in the Voluntary Protection Program decreased in fiscal 2011, data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration shows.
As of the end of fiscal 2011, membership had dropped to 2,416 employers, down 1.5 percent from 2,453 the year before, making 2011 the first year since the 1982 inception of the VPP program that membership declined.
OSHA and Voluntary Protection Program Participant Association officials cited several reasons for the lack of growth during the past year, including hurricane damage, business consolidation, and reduced commitment to the program by some participants.
“There are a number of factors. … The economy plays into it as well,” R. Davis Layne, executive director of the participant association, told BNA. While Layne believes businesses save money in the long run by being part of VPP, he said they may not think they are able to spend the money and time up front to qualify.
OSHA estimated that, on average, an employer spends 200 hours completing a VPP application and 20 hours to finish the annual evaluation (41 OSHR 259, 3/24/11).
For large sites, the estimated times for annual reviews are at least three times as much, according to employer comments to OSHA.
To join VPP, employers apply to state or federal OSHA offices, then undergo an on-site evaluation, implement effective safety and health programs, and maintain injury and illness rates below national averages for their industries. In exchange, the VPP members are exempt from OSHA-programmed inspections.
In an e-mailed response to questions about VPP's lack of growth in 2011, OSHA cited several reasons, beyond economic problems.
“During 2011, hurricane damage caused some VPP sites to close,” OSHA said. “Other sites withdrew because their companies consolidated or closed sites. Still other sites withdrew because of declining management and worker/union commitment necessary to participate in VPP.”
Neither OSHA nor the association thought the agency's mixed message about the future of VPP was a factor.
In 2010, the Obama administration sought to charge a fee to VPP participants to cover the program's costs. The idea was that taxpayer money that would have supported the VPP could be used to fund other OSHA programs, such as those targeting businesses with high injury and illness rates. The VPP fee idea died later in 2010 because of opposition from lawmakers and participants (40 OSHR 775, 9/16/10).
“All that has been worked through,” Layne said of the fee proposal. However, while the administration has backed off the fee idea, the memory of the proposed initiative may take time to fade, he added.
One factor fueling Layne's optimism for VPP's rebound was the increased attendance at the association's national conference last August in New Orleans. Attendance, at 3,300 participants, was nearly 20 percent higher than in 2010, he said. Another 160 people would have attended but Hurricane Irene's path up the East Coast prevented them from traveling.
While OSHA dropped the fee proposal, some of the qualifications to be in VPP have changed, and the agency is reevaluating the program in the wake of a 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office critical of OSHA's oversight (39 OSHR 699, 8/20/09).
“OSHA is completing a comprehensive internal review of the VPP that will not only lead to measures to ensure the integrity of the program, but also develop more efficient ways to increase membership and maintain the quality of VPP members,” the agency statement said.
Among the issues being considered by OSHA is the impact a worksite death or willful citation should have on an employer's membership (41 OSHR 762, 9/8/11).
For More Information
The 2009 GAO report is available at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09395.pdf.
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