In 1982 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) started a new program called the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). Under this program, if corporations met certain health and safety guidelines and had employee involvement programs, they could be exempted from random OSHA inspections. This idea was met with skepticism from unions and health and safety activists. The big fear was that this was just a program disguised to help corporations escape OSHA inspections.
UE Tips for the VPP Program
- Participating in this program will only work if the Union has an active and educated membership.
- The Union must have a view that WE the Union will take responsibility for our health and safety, not just react to what the company does.
- The Union must negotiate to have some real control over the program. This does not mean that all responsibility falls on the Union. The company must supply all the resources (training, materials, safety equipment, maintenance workers, etc.) the Union needs to make the workplace a safe and healthy one.
- The Union must have no part of disciplining other Union members.
- The Union must elect their own safety representatives, not have company appointed representatives. The Union members must be free to recall the elected health and safety people if they are not doing their job.
- The health and safety program must remain part of the overall Union program, not something set apart.
- The Union health and safety representatives must realize that first and foremost their job is to improve the working conditions for the Union members. They must not become apologists for the company ("that machine is too expensive to fix" etc).
In some workplaces UE Locals have now had many years of dealing with the VPP program and found that if the union remains vigilant and if stewards and the health & safety committee take an active approach to safeguarding the health and safety of workers, the VPP program can work. In fact some UE Locals have found that they can have more input into the workplace health and safety if they aggressively use all the avenues the VPP program provides.
The VPP Program
Here is how OSHA describes the VPP Program:
"To qualify for VPP, applicants must have in place an effective safety and health management system that meets rigorous performance-based criteria. In addition, all relevant OSHA standards must be met.
OSHA verifies qualifications through a comprehensive on-site review process. OSHA approves successful applicants as Star, Merit, or Demonstration participants, with an exemption from programmed or scheduled inspections. (Emphasis added)
Participation in VPP does not diminish the rights or responsibilities of employers or employees under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). Complaints, accidents, chemical spills, and other significant events will result in an OSHA enforcement inspection according to agency policies."
To qualify for participation in the VPP program the employer must develop a plan, based upon 3 full years of records that would reduce their accident, injury and illness rate to BELOW the industry average within two years. This cannot be a pie in the sky plan, it must be proven to be feasible.
If there is a Union at the workplace, the Union must play an active role in VPP and must sign a formal statement indicating support of the VPP program.
Another criteria is that the plan include "at least three ways employees are meaningfully involved in activities and decision-making that impacts their safety and health."
The UE Local 506 Experience
At the General Electric, Erie, PA plants, UE Local 506 has now had about 10 years of experience with the VPP program. Their experience with the program has been good, but only, according to Chief Steward Dave Kitchen, because the union controls the process. Without union control of the process it would just be another company program. How does this work?
Each of the 9 divisions at the Erie GE location has one or more (depending on it's size) Safety Coordinators. These Safety Coordinators are elected every two years by the union membership in their division, the same as union stewards. These are full time jobs and they can be re-called from the position, the same as a union steward. It is the job of the Safety Coordinators to maintain the health and safety of their area. The overall health and safety program of the company is directed by a Safety Steering Committee that has union members as the majority. This way the union can set the agenda, not just react to a company agenda as happens in many workplaces. Having trained UE members responsible for the health and safety program has given the union more focus on the issues.
The Union Executive Board meets regularly with the Union Safety Coordinators so that everyone is on the same page.
What about discipline? The union was very specific in its negotiations with the company; the union safety coordinators have nothing to do with disciplining other union members. If a union member refuses to follow the health and safety rules (such as not wearing safety glasses) then it can be suggested to them to attend a peer counseling session with other union members. There are no records kept of who attends. If a union member continues to refuse to obey safety rules it is the job of the company to discipline him/her.
What is the result of this program? The accident and injury rates have fallen drastically at the Erie plants.
The employer must identify all known and/or potential hazards. This includes all hazards found within OSHA regulations, including exposure to chemicals.
Some other requirements of the VPP program are:
"An effective system for eliminating or controlling hazards. This system emphasizes engineering solutions that provide the most reliable and effective protection. It may also utilize, in preferred order, administrative controls that limit daily exposure, such as job rotation; work practice controls, such as rules and work practices that govern how a job is done safely and healthfully; and personal protective equipment." This is not very different than standard OSHA regulations.
"A constant disciplinary system that operates for all employees-including supervisors and managers-who disregard rules."
There are three levels of the VPP program:
Star Program: This is a workplace that has successfully implemented all of the VPP criteria and has lowered its illness and injury rate to below the average for its industry. A company that reaches Star level only gets an onsite evaluation by OSHA every 2 1/2 to 5 years.
Merit Program: This is a workplace that has instituted a VPP program and expects to lower its illness and injury rate to below the national average within 2-3 years. They receive an on-site OSHA inspection every 18-24 months.
Demonstration Programs: These are companies that are trying experiments in new health and safety programs. OSHA must approve these experiments. They receive on-site inspections every 12-18 months.
Why do employers join the VPP program? For the most part because they are removed from the OSHA spot inspection list and therefore are "masters of their own ship." They also appear to be companies that realize that lower illness and injury levels save them significant amounts of money on workers' compensation insurance rates, and on not having to replace injured workers.