The true value of VPP is not recognition, but the example we can set
But the real value comes in the sort of workplace safety and health climate that makes them eligible to join, whether they choose to do so or not."
In July, I had the opportunity to participate in a stakeholder meeting hosted by federal OSHA in Washington, D.C. The topic of the meeting was the Voluntary Protection Program, and it was part of federal OSHA’s effort “to solicit suggestions for growing and strengthening the Voluntary Protection Programs.”
Somewhat predictably, much of the discussion was about the need to provide more resources for site evaluation and to eliminate administrative barriers (real and perceived) to the inclusion of new sites. Pretty much everyone acknowledged the need to “keep the bar high,” although the emphasis placed on that point varied considerably – anyone who has ever heard me talk about VPP and its value and purpose can probably guess that my primary message was about the importance of not lowering the bar in any way. My message was simple: Our goal needs to be to encourage more employers to be VPP-ready. If they decide to join the program, that’s great! But the real value comes in the sort of workplace safety and health climate that makes them eligible to join, whether they choose to do so or not.
VPP’s value as a recognition program depends upon our commitment to never growing the program at the expense of its commitment to excellence in safety and health. Oregon did not have the dramatic growth in VPP that many programs did a decade ago – and we do not apologize for that. Instead, we see our reluctance to lower our standards or to provide additional incentives to encourage participation as one of the fundamental strengths of our program. A VPP Star really means something in the state of Oregon, and it always will.
Critics of the program – and they were represented (although in the minority) at the D.C. meeting – generally focus not only on concerns about reducing the program’s standards, but also on the resources diverted to the program from other purposes, primarily enforcement (at least in the federal context). The availability of resources and the impact on our enforcement capability have never been a particular issue with Oregon’s program, partly because we have not experienced the dramatic expansion some federal programs have and partly because we are able to bring other resources (from consultation and elsewhere) to bear on the issue. But during the discussion, the program’s critics raise an important point: Why should federal OSHA – or Oregon OSHA, for that matter – expend relatively scarce resources to recognize a good employer rather than focus those resources on the employers who truly need our attention?
For me, the answer to that question has always been in the mentorship that we expect – and demand – of VPP participants. We expect them to make their expertise and example available to other workplaces through conferences, participation in the SHARP alliance, and a number of other venues. Mark Hurliman, who manages Oregon OSHA’s recognition programs, makes that expectation clear both in his public presentations and in his individual conversations with VPP participants and those pursuing that status. Without the resource leverage that we get from VPP employers in the form of health and safety leadership, I would not be able to justify what it takes Oregon OSHA to run the program. But that leadership is a reality, at least in Oregon. And that’s what makes VPP a strong value not only for its participants, but also for those of us charged with promoting workplace health and safety throughout the state.