Workplace Safety and Health:

OSHA's Voluntary Compliance Strategies Show Promising Results, but Should be Fully Evaluated Before They Are Expanded

GAO-04-378: Published: Mar 19, 2004. Publicly Released: Mar 30, 2004.

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Anne Marie F. Lasowski
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Because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can inspect only a fraction of 7 million U.S. worksites each year in its efforts to ensure safe and healthy working conditions, the agency has increasingly supplemented enforcement with "voluntary compliance strategies" to reach more employers and employ its resources most effectively. GAO assessed the types of strategies used, the extent of their use, and their effectiveness. GAO also obtained suggestions from specialists for additional voluntary compliance strategies.

OSHA has implemented four voluntary programs, using a mix of strategies, that have extended its reach to a growing number of employers. For example, one program recognizes more than 1,000 worksites with exemplary records and practices while another focuses on hazardous industries, encouraging more than 200 employers to eliminate serious hazards. The agency plans to significantly expand its voluntary compliance programs over the next few years, although such expansion may tax its limited resources. OSHA's voluntary compliance programs appear to have yielded many positive outcomes, but the agency does not yet have adequate data to assess their individual and relative effectiveness. Employers and employees at nine worksites we visited attested to reductions in injuries and illnesses and improved relationships with one another and with OSHA. However, the agency has just begun to evaluate its programs and much of its data are insufficient for evaluation. For example, data on one program are inconsistent, making comparisons difficult, and goals for another program are individually developed and not readily measurable. The lack of such data makes it difficult for OSHA to articulate priorities and necessary resource allocations. The additional strategies that researchers and specialists suggested generally fell into four categories: providing more incentives to encourage additional employers to voluntarily improve workplace safety and health; promoting more systematic approaches to workplace safety and health; focusing more specifically on high-hazard, high-injury workplaces; and using third-party approaches to achieve voluntary compliance.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In August 2006, OSHA reported that an external evaluation of OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program was completed in September 2005. The report indicated that VPP participants experienced reductions of injuries and illness. OSHA also upgraded its automated database systems for the VPP and Partnership programs in 2006 to manage program information more efficiently. OSHA's February 2005 strategic partnership directive included a new format for the annual evaluation report, which should help ensure consistency in the data collected. OSHA also established tools to monitor the consultation program's effectiveness and the effectiveness of services delivered by the consultation projects. These include quarterly reports with performance measurements, six of which OSHA uses as factors in allocating funds for the program. In FY07, OSHA did not provide an update. OSHA's FY08 update did not provide any new information to address the recommendation. GAO also determined that the evaluation report was not useful.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen OSHA's voluntary compliance strategies, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to identify cost-effective methods of collecting complete, comparable data on program outcomes for the VPP and Partnership programs to use in assessing their effectiveness, and continue to search for cost-effective approaches that will enable the agency to assess the effectiveness of the State Consultation and Alliance programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: OSHA had reported in 2006 that its strategic plan was being updated and that its goals and performance measures would align with the department's goals for workplace safety and health. OSHA's voluntary compliance programs allow OSHA constituents to choose the program that effectively addresses their workplace safety and health issues, according to OSHA. Except for the Consultation program, which is legislatively mandated and has earmarked funds, OSHA's voluntary programs depend upon constituent demand rather than agency resource allocation. However, GAO's recommendation focuses on the need for OSHA to set priorities among these programs before further expanding them.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen OSHA's voluntary compliance strategies, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to develop a strategic framework that articulates the purposes and distinctions of the different voluntary compliance programs, sets priorities among these programs, and identifies how the agency's resources should be allocated among these programs, before further expanding them.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor


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