Thursday, July 20, 2006

Europe To OSHA's VPP: Thanks, But No Thanks

Sometimes it takes someone on the outside (in this case outside the country) to get an honest perspective on the problems we have in this country. In this case, Laurent Vogel, a researcher with the European Trade Union Institute, has written an article about OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs. Why? Because the United States is trying to export this program to the rest of the world.

VPP, for those of you who don't know, is a voluntary safety program originally developed during the Reagan Administration that allows firms that maintain good health and safety records to escape routine OSHA inspection, other than worker complaints, large number of injuries or fatal accidents. Companies must have a health and safety management system, then OSHA audits the program, and a team of specialists conducts a full onsite evaluation. Thge participating companies must show that their recorded injuries and illnesses say below the industry average for the past three years.

Vogel notes OSHA's enthusiasm for this program:
OSHA's appetite knows no bounds. Since 1998, VPPs can now be run in the federal civil service. In October 2004, an agreement was reached between OSHA and the army to extend VPPs to military sites, among other things. In August 2005, an OSHA official, Jonathan Snare, floated the possibility of extending the programme to US armed forces' combat operations in Afghanistan.
We've written here about how OSHA has even established a VPP program at one of its own offices.

One of the most important points that Vogel makes is that even though a VPP program requires "worker participation," there's no requirement that "worker participation" means that VPP programs must have unions. (Although "direct participation" schemes that often involve disciplinary control mechanisms are smiled upon.) He also cites OSHA's figure that only a quarter of VPP participating sites and barely 15% of sub-contracting firms have trade union representation, which is particularly troubling considering that about half employ more than 200 workers.

One of OSHA's biggest selling point for VPP is that it allegedly saves money. But this "hard sell" raises a series of issues:
  1. It is not easy to determine whether VPPs make firms perform better , or whether it is firms that already run better-performing HSW systems who sign up to VPPs.

  2. The figures come from the firms themselves. There is no enforcement action to address under-reporting of work-related accidents and diseases.

  3. Long-term health effects are all-but absent from the VPP indicators. The main indicator is total sick days due to work injuries and occupational diseases, which excludes long latency health damage and that which does not necessarily involve time off (reproductive health disorders, for example). That may add to pressure on workers to make the earliest possible return to work.

  4. There is no assessment of preventive practices as such. More workers in industrialised countries now die of work-related cancer than work accidents. Evaluating cancer prevention practices would involve assessing the priority given to replacing carcinogens with safer substances. But there is no such indicator anywhere in the VPP literature. These voluntary programmes leave employers a generally free hand in setting prevention priorities. The business case emphasis is not really apt to promote long-term risk prevention.

  5. There are cases of firms being awarded VPP Star status despite being in flagrant breach of their prevention obligations.
Regarding the last point, we've written in Confined Space about OSHA giving VPP status to W.R. Grace, which is under criminal indictment for knowingly exposing hundreds of workers and an entire community to asbestos. OSHA also gave TropicanaBeverages in Bradenton, Florida its VPP Star award (reserved for exemplary worksites with comprehensive, successful safety and health management systems.) OSHA later issued two willful citations to the company, with proposed penalties of $126,000, after two mechanics were seriously burned by a flash fire that occurred during maintenance operations. Yet OSHA allowed the company to keep its Star status.
"I have met with officials of Tropicana and parent company, PepsiCo, and believe this event was a wake-up call. I am convinced of their commitment to the high standards of the Voluntary Protection Programs," said Cindy Coe Laseter, OSHA's Atlanta regional administrator.
Vogel also points out that VPP is heavily tied to behavioral safety programs. Behavioral safety advocates argue that workers' misbehavior is the cause of most accidents and injuries. By punishing workers for not following rules or providing incentives for not getting hurt (or not reporting injuries), workplace safety is supposed to improve. OSHA's VPP system provides for disciplinary measures against workers who do not follow the safety directives, but does not require a thorough investigation of why they did not do so. The problem, as Vogel points out is that
"Behavioural safety" tends to steer away from any holistic analysis of work organisation. Faced with a discrepancy between actual work and prescribed work, it shies away from asking key questions like "were the instructions doable?", "did they conflict with production requirements?", "were they in line with the actual work?"
OSHA's VPP program also absorbs an enormous portion of OSHA's resources, a problem that the Government Accounting Office identified in 2004. Yet, as Vogel notes, most of these resources go to those who need them least:
Available figures for 2003 suggest that 2.3 million workers are affected by VPPs, the Strategic Partnership Program and States Consultation Program. But OSHA is meant to give coverage to more than 100 million workers, which raises reasonable questions about OSHA's budget priorities. The policy commitment to promoting an inspection system favourable to employers' interests has in fact produced an indirect wholesale subsidizing of big business. Pace their propagandists, VPPs do not help redirect resources towards the sectors most in need.
As if their workplace activities weren't troublesome enough, Vogel also points out the growing political influence of the
the VPPPA, the powerful VPP Participants Association, which systematically intervenes to see that OSHA policymaking reflects the employers' agenda. The VPPPA's role is illustrated by the thwarting of any attempt by OSHA to call time on practises that encourage the non-reporting of work injuries.
OSHA has planned during the Clinton administration to cite employers for safety incentive and disciplinary programs when it could be shown that they discourage workers from reportign injuries. Largely due to the influence of the VPPPA, that initiative was withdrawn.

What worries Vogel most, however, is the potential export of the VPP program to other countries, especially those with large American multinational companies. The US is not exactly seen as any friendlier to workplace safety issues abroad than it is at home. It has lead the charge to weaken the European Communities more preventive approach to chemical reguilations (REACH) and
In June 2005, the United States government voted against the adoption of an International Labour Organisation Convention for a Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health 7, one strand of which is the need for a management systems approach to health and safety. The US government wanted a simple non-binding declaration.
The great fear from overseas, if the US is successful in exporting VPP is the creation of
a system shaped by the US labour relations model: low trade union participation (or even a non-union shop), a business case-based health and safety policy that tends to disregard long-term health problems. The extension of VPPs is also an argument for "relaxing" national regulations, portrayed as potential roadblocks to foreign investment. VPPs could be instrumental in the creation of "free zones" where multinationals are partially relieved of labour inspections.
There's much more good stuff in the article. Go read the whole thing before VPPA makes its way to your worksite (if it hasn't already).