Tuesday, April 27, 2004

GAO Evaluates OSHA’s Voluntary Programs

You Too Can Volunteer To Keep Your Employees Safe

The Government Accounting Office issued an evaluation of OSHA’s voluntary programs a while back and I’m just getting around to reading it. The report was requested by Congressman Charlie "OSHA Killed the Tooth Fairy" Norwood (R-GA). The programs evaluated include State consultation programs, funded by OSHA, Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), Strategic Partnership Program, and the new Alliance Program. Some, such as VPP, exempt companies from regularly scheduled inspections; membership in others can result in lower fines, while others, such as the Alliances, focus on education and public relations.

According to OSHA's interpetation of the report, the GAO found that these things were the best thing since Post-It notes. After reading the report myself, however, I have come to the conclusion that either no one at OSHA actually read the report, or (more likely) they're hoping that no one else reads the report.

In summary, the GAO report reminds me of the old Pac-Man game: voluntary programs have no proven value, but they're gobbling up the resources that OSHA needs to fulfil its Congressional mandate to “assure safe working conditions for working men and women.”

On its website, OSHA boasts that the “GAO Report Highlights Effectiveness of OSHA's Voluntary and Cooperative Programs”

John Henshaw says that
The General Accounting Office's report recognizes that these compliance assistance programs are highly effective in extending OSHA's reach. They complement and augment OSHA's aggressive efforts to enforce occupational safety and health standards to achieve greater reductions in workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities.
The OSHA announcement states that
A year-long study by the Government Accounting Office on OSHA's voluntary compliance programs wrapped up last month saying the strategies "have improved employers' safety and health practices" and noted that many participants interviewed said the programs resulted in not only helping to reduce injury and illness rates but also have fostered "better working relationships with OSHA."
Those of us who still think that Congress was serious when it created OSHA as an agency that is supposed to enforce the American worker’s right to a safe workplace might take a different view.

OSHA’s voluntary programs go all the way back to the Reagan era with the founding of the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) in 1982. Alliances, primarily with industry associations, are the newest program, developed in the Bush administration as a substitute for issuing standards and are the only OSHA voluntary program that doesn't include labor unions. 41 percent of OSHA’s national alliances, for example, were ergonomic-related. OSHA recently established an alliance with a number of chemical industry associations as a substitute for revising its Process Safety Management regulation as recommended by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

What is missing from OSHA’s rather sanguine view of the report is that the optimistic conclusions are based almost solely on interviews with participants (all nine of them), who (surprise) prefer voluntary activities over actual enforcement of the law. Otherwise, there’s no real evidence that these programs are effective in improving health and safety conditions.

The report concludes that
OSHA’s voluntary compliance programs have reduced injuries and illnesses and yielded other benefits, according to participants, OSHA officials, and occupational safety and health specialists, but the lack of comprehensive data makes it difficult to fully assess the effectiveness of these programs. Participants we interviewed in the three states and nine worksites we visited told us they have considerably reduced their rates of injury and illness. They also attributed better working relationships with OSHA, improved productivity, and decreased worker compensation costs to their involvement in the voluntary compliance programs. However, much of the information on program success was anecdotal, and OSHA’s own evaluation of program activities and impact has been limited to date. OSHA currently does not collect complete, comparable data that would enable a full evaluation of the effectiveness of its voluntary compliance programs. (My emphasis)
I don’t know about you (or Congress), but I don't need to spend dwindling taxpayer dollars to condcut a GAO study that concludes that companies would rather have voluntary programs than enforcement and fines…or that they would say that the voluntary programs are more effective. Do bears defecate in the woods?

This might be rather amusing in an irritating sort of way, until you get to the resource section. The GAO is rather concerned about the large and growing level of resources that OSHA is dedicating to a group of programs with no proven effectiveness:
The resources OSHA devotes to its voluntary compliance strategies consume a significant and growing portion of the agency’s limited resources. In fiscal year 2003, OSHA executed its numerous programs under a $450 million budget. The agency spent $126 million on its voluntary compliance programs and compliance assistance activities— approximately 28 percent of its total budget—and about $254 million, about 56 percent of its budget, on enforcement activities. The percentage of resources dedicated to voluntary compliance programs and compliance assistance activities has increased by approximately 8 percent since 1996, when these programs represented about 20 percent of the agency’s budget. During this same period, the proportion of resources OSHA dedicated to its enforcement activities fell by 6 percent, from about 63 percent to about 56 percent of the agency’s total budget, although the total funds devoted to enforcement have remained fairly constant because of increases in OSHA’s total budget over this period. In addition, enforcement efforts, as measured by the number of inspections, have remained constant or increased slightly each year, according to agency officials. While it cannot be determined that resources were directly redistributed from enforcement to compliance assistance activities, funding for OSHA’s other programs remained relatively stable, with only small increases or decreases in funding since 1996(My emphasis)
(And for those of you who are math-challenged, that means that the share of OSHA’s budget devoted to compliance assistance has gone up by 40%, while the share devoted to enforcement has gone down by 11%.)

By the way, OSHA’s Susan Harwood training grant program is also part of the total voluntary compliance program budget. Look at the trends over the past five years: In FY 2000, the Harwood program was funded at $8 million and went up to $11 million the following year, where it remains today despite the Bush administration’s annual attempts to replace the training grant program with a $4 million internet "training" program. The rest of compliance assistance was at $89 million in FY 2000 and has swollen to $124 million for next year.

From FY 2004 to FY 2005, the Bush Administration wants to cut the worker training program by over $6 million whlie it wants to raise the voluntary compliance programs by $5 million. Hmmm….

The report notes that these voluntary compliance programs don’t come cheap. They require agency oversight to ensure that participants comply with requirements or agreements, which results in “growing administrative responsibility” that requires "concerted agency resources."

Frighteningly, OSHA plans to increase in the number of worksites in the VPP program from 1,000 to 8,000. The report points out, however, that to certify a worksite as a VPP worksite requires a comprehensive on-site review that usually lasts 1 week and involves approximately three to five OSHA personnel. The report notes that
Several regional officials—whose offices are responsible for conducting on-site reviews—said that increasing the number of VPP worksites would strain their resources because of the number of staff required to conduct reviews of new worksites and recertifications of existing worksites.
The GAO report concludes with a recommendation that before expanding these programsOSHA might want to actually collect data to evaluate these programs and then develop a “strategic framework” to figure out how to pay for all of these competing priorities.
The agency must balance its plans to expand its voluntary compliance programs with its enforcement responsibilities. Given OSHA’s current resources, it is unclear how it can undertake much expansion without a careful assessment of the impact on its resources and other programs. Unless it has such an assessment, OSHA runs the risk of compromising the quality of its voluntary compliance programs.
Compromising its voluntary compliance programs? Sounds to me like they’re compromising the rest of OSHA.