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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jul 10, 2012, 4:08 pm

When Safety Becomes Voluntary: Workplace Self-Policing Program Under Scrutiny

BY Michelle Chen

(Cartoon by Carol Simpson, courtesy of Carol Simpson CartoonWork)

What’s the value of a worker’s life? According to the calculus of corporate efficiency, it’s often still cheaper to put workers at risk than to spend money to protect them. And the federal government generously rewards those who have perfected this cost-containment strategy in industries where workplace hazards are just part of business as usual.

For years, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has granted many companies a pass on government oversight with the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). Touting big-name members like Coca Cola and ExxonMobil, the program works like a sort of gold star for employers with good safety records, which OSHA believes are capable of regulating themselves. As In These Times has reported previously, many companies granted this status can basically enjoy years of relief from regular federal evaluation.

To ordinary citizens this may seem like a fox guarding a hen house packed with dynamite, but many employers champion the VPP as a way of "partnering" with government to avoid onerous state oversight. Congress recently reviewed the program at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, which examined the VPP in light of recent reports about horrid workplace accidents, along with criticisms that the initiative undermines both labor standards and the government’s role in protecting the public from industrial exploitation.

Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor with the think tank Center for Progressive Reform, told ITT, "What the voluntary program does, let's make no mistake about it, is it allows people to self-regulate. Basically, if you have someone who can fill out the paperwork, you're off the hook."

Evidently, not even the death of a worker is enough to persuade the government to revoke a company’s privileged status. According to a 2011 report by the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News:

Workers at plants billed as the nation’s safest have died in preventable explosions, chemical releases and crane accidents. They have been pulled into machinery or asphyxiated. Investigators, called in because of deaths, have uncovered underlying safety problems — failure to follow recognized safety practices, inadequate inspections and training, lack of proper protective gear, unguarded machinery, improper handling of hazardous chemicals. Yet these companies have rarely faced heavy fines or expulsion from the program. In death cases in which OSHA found at least one violation, VPP companies ultimately paid an average of about $8,000 in fines. And at least 65 percent of sites where a worker has died since 2000 remain in VPP today.

The Reagan-Era program has ballooned in recent years, tripling the number of worksites covered between 2000 and 2008. The ideological foundation of the program reflects a general hostility to safety and environmental regulation under the Bush administration. 

Although we’re several generations removed from the workplace atrocities of the early industrial age, workers becoming ill or dying from their jobs remains a routine aspect of working life in the U.S. Even outside of special deals with OSHA like the VPP, a lack of resources for inspections and enforcement means that many companies escape oversight by default. 

Keith Wrightson, a Worker Safety and Health Advocate with Public Citizen, told ITT, “VPP takes the OSHA inspector out of the picture.” When protection is “voluntary” on the part of bosses, employees have little reason to volunteer to report a workplace violation if it might get them fired. In general, he said, “OSHA inspections are nil. Why do we want to further dissolve what authority it does have over the workplace?” 

From the employer’s standpoint, Wrightson noted, “If there's fewer injuries on the job then the workers’ comp rates don't rise. Your health insurance costs do not rise and your liability insurance does not rise." But in the political debate, he said, "we don't see those facts at the forefront. ... The idea of VPP is a free market, where nobody should regulate, nobody should look, it's laissez faire, and it's not good."

But EHS Today reported that the House committee hearing did at least review new research showing that state workplace monitoring can protect workers and save companies money at the same time:
The study found that within high-hazard industries in California, inspected workplaces reduced their injury claims by 9.4 percent and saved 26 percent on workers' compensation costs in the 4 years following the inspection, compared to a similar set of uninspected workplaces. On average, inspected firms saved an estimated $355,000 in injury claims and compensation for paid lost work over that period. What's more, there was no discernible impact on the companies' profits.

So if profits aren’t hurt by inspections, corporations appear to reject government oversight simply on principle.

Steinzor sees a blatant imbalance in the way the government weighs health and safety needs against the profits of its corporate partners. “I think this is a class issue,” she said. “And it's shameful that the content and implementation of the nation's laws on occupational safety and the environment show systematic neglect of working-class people's lives in heavy industrial jobs, and far more concern for the well-being of yuppies in the exurbs."

In a system that tends to make the law comply with corporations rather than the other way around, “voluntary protection” seems to do exactly what the phrase implies: to make workers’ rights optional.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

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