OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs:

Improved Oversight and Controls Would Better Ensure Program Quality

GAO-09-395: Published: May 20, 2009. Publicly Released: Jun 18, 2009.

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The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for ensuring workplace safety. OSHA has established a number of programs, including the Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP), that take a cooperative approach to obtaining compliance with safety and health regulations and OSHA's standards. OSHA established the VPP in 1982 to recognize worksites with exemplary safety and health programs. GAO was asked to review (1) the number and characteristics of employer worksites in the VPP and factors that have influenced growth, (2) the extent to which OSHA ensures that only qualified worksites participate in the VPP, and (3) the adequacy of OSHA's efforts to monitor performance and evaluate the effectiveness of the VPP. GAO analyzed OSHA's VPP data, reviewed a representative sample of VPP case files, and interviewed agency officials.

The VPP has grown steadily since its inception in 1982, with the number of employer worksites in the program more than doubling--from 1,039 sites in 2003 to 2,174 sites in 2008. Although industries represented have not changed significantly, with the chemical industry having the largest number of sites in the VPP, the number of sites in the motor freight transportation industry--which includes U.S. Postal Service sites--increased tenfold from 2003 to 2008. The proportion of smaller VPP sites--those with fewer than 100 workers--increased from 28 percent in 2003 to 39 percent in 2008. Key factors influencing growth of the VPP have been OSHA's emphasis on expansion of the program and VPP participants' outreach to other employers. OSHA's internal controls are not sufficient to ensure that only qualified worksites participate in the VPP. The lack of a policy requiring documentation in VPP files regarding follow-up actions taken in response to incidents, such as fatalities and serious injuries, at VPP sites limits the national office's ability to ensure that its regions have taken the required actions. Such actions include reviewing sites' safety and health systems and determining whether sites should remain in the program. GAO reviewed OSHA's VPP files for the 30 sites that had fatalities from January 2003 to August 2008 and found that the files contained no documentation of actions taken by the regions' VPP staff. GAO interviewed regional officials and reviewed the inspection files for these sites and found that some sites had safety and health violations related to the fatalities, including one site with seven serious violations. As a result, some sites that no longer met the definition of an exemplary worksite remained in the VPP. In addition, OSHA's oversight is limited because it does not have internal controls, such as reviews by the national office, to ensure that regions consistently comply with VPP policies for monitoring sites' injury and illness rates and conducting on-site reviews. For example, the national office has not ensured that regions follow up as required when VPP sites' injury and illness rates rise above the minimum requirements for the program, including having sites develop plans for reducing their rates. Finally, OSHA has not developed goals or measures to assess the performance of the VPP, and the agency's efforts to evaluate the program's effectiveness have been inadequate. OSHA officials said that low injury and illness rates are effective measures of performance. These rates, however, may not be the best measures because GAO found discrepancies between the rates reported by worksites annually to OSHA and the rates OSHA noted during its on-site reviews. In addition, OSHA has not assessed the impact of the VPP on sites' injury and illness rates. In response to a recommendation in a GAO report issued in 2004, OSHA contracted with a consulting firm to conduct a study of the program's effectiveness. However, flaws in the design of the study and low response rates made it unreliable as a measure of effectiveness. OSHA officials acknowledged the study's limitations but had not conducted or planned other evaluations of the VPP.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Beginning in August 2009, OSHA issued a series of VPP Policy Memoranda that specified actions to address this recommendation. The agency reinforced the policy requiring Regions to immediately provide specified information to the National Office upon learning of a fatality or other serious injury and to ensure that all communications are appropriately documented and placed in the participant file. Summary information from enforcement files with final disposition or contest status and information from OSHA's Integrated Management Information System (IMIS) are also put in the participant file. The agency also initiated annual audits of regional VPP participant files to ensure that files are properly documented and maintained when a fatality or serious injury occurs. Each Region must submit copies of specified VPP files to the National Office for review. When the audit is complete, the results are documented with a memorandum of findings. Finally, the agency updated its Management Accountability Program (MAP), which requires regional actions and documentation in response to a fatality or serious injury at a VPP site.

    Recommendation: To ensure proper controls and measurement of program performance, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to develop a documentation policy regarding information on follow-up actions taken by OSHA's regional offices in response to fatalities and serious injuries at VPP sites.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OSHA issued a series of VPP Policy Memorandum from August 2009 to June 2011 that include provisions addressing this recommendation. Examples of actions taken to promote consistency across Regions include: clarifying policy and procedures for reviewing and evaluating safety and health incentive programs at VPP applicant and participant worksites; requiring all Regions to use the VPP Automated Data System or an equivalent regional tracking system to ensure onsite evaluations are conducted within established timeframes; implementing a uniform policy regarding communication with applicants and participants about VPP approval; and establishing uniform procedures to notify VPP participants and their union representatives of their approval/reapproval. To better monitor injury and illness data, OSHA reinforced the actions staff must take when a Star participant's 3-year Total Case Incidence Rate (TCIR) or Days Away/Restricted/ Transfer (DART) rate or both exceed VPP requirements. For instance, the agency established improved policy and procedures for the annual submissions of injury and illness rate data required of all VPP participants. Whenever a participant's TCIR and/or DART rates exceed VPP requirements, the Region performs an analysis to determine what action is appropriate. The agency has directed that all decisions and corrective actions made by the Region are documented and included in the participant files. It improved its tracking and oversight when a participant's TCIR and/or DART rate exceeds VPP requirements to indicate if a 1-year conditional or rate reduction plan has been issued, which more effectively monitor participants whose rates or safety and health management system need improvement. The agency also established new procedures to identify discrepancies between injury and illness data reviewed during the onsite evaluation and data reported by the VPP participant on its annual self-evaluation. In the event of any discrepancies, the participant must be informed and revise its records and the National Office must be notified of any changes. The evaluation report that each onsite team is required to complete must include a statement that this data comparison has been conducted and needed actions taken.

    Recommendation: To ensure proper controls and measurement of program performance, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to establish internal controls that ensure consistent compliance by the regions with OSHA's VPP policies for conducting on-site reviews and monitoring injury and illness rates so that only qualified worksites participate in the program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In FY09, OSHA stated that it believes injury and illness rates are the most appropriate measure of VPP's impact, however, the agency would look further into this issue and explore additional ways to measure participant performance and program impact. In FY10, the agency reported that it would evaluate VPP programs, including analyzing current and potential performance goals and measures, and determining VPP's effectiveness and optimal resource allocation. As of FY12, OSHA reported that continued to evaluate and develop ways to improve internal controls and measurement of program performance and effectiveness as part of its ongoing VPP continuous improvement process. In addition, OSHA formed a VPP Workgroup of regional and national VPP officials to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of OSHA's VPP in response to our recommendations. The Workgroup issued an evaluation report on August 17, 2012, which was posted to the public VPP Web site (http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/vpp/vpp_report_nov_2011_rev_7-11-12.pdf). The report includes 34 recommendations, many of which involve monitoring the VPP program, such as recertification of VPP sites, participation in onsite evaluation, clarification and communication of policies and procedures, and effective use of limited resources. OSHA developed an action plan to address these recommendations and, as of March 2013, nine have been fully implemented. For example, OSHA increased the number of special government employees who could participate in VPP onsite evaluations. Many other recommendations are partially complete or in process but expected to be substantially implemented by December 31, 2013.

    Recommendation: To ensure proper controls and measurement of program performance, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to establish a system for monitoring the performance of the VPP by developing specific performance goals and measures for the program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

 

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