Workplace safety success

Sen. Mike Enzi U.S. Senator, Wyoming
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The National Safety Council has estimated that in 2007, Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) participants saved more than $300 million in private sector injury costs, not to mention the pain avoided. They also saved the government more than $59 million by avoiding injuries. When employers make the significant commitment to safety required by VPP, it allows OSHA to focus its resources where they are most needed. Adding 35 additional inspectors at OSHA won’t do much to improve workplace safety, but a nationwide effort like VPP actually builds cohesive relationships between federal regulators and employers – if it’s allowed to keep working.

Workplace safety matters most to the people who punch the clock every day. It matters to me. Washington’s proposed cuts to a voluntary workplace safety program that invests employees and their employers in protecting workers and achieving federal safety standards, before an inspector ever sets foot in the workplace, would damage a productive partnership and put more emphasis on heavy-handed enforcement from the federal government. Regrettably, the Administration is preparing to break something that’s working – not fix something that’s broken.

The Department of Labor’s Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) is a cooperative program between private industry and the DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The program is a fine example of industry doing its part to promote occupational safety and health programs proactively. The best part is that VPP works.

Unfortunately, voluntarily monitoring safety on your worksite appears to fall in the “thinking outside of the box” category in Washington these days, and the president’s budget for next year significantly reduces federal funding for the VPP. The budget would also shift 35 full-time employees at the DOL from supporting VPP programs to enforcement activities – essentially moving these employees from VPP support to investigating, citing, fining and punishing employers who could have been trained to take steps to better protect employees – voluntarily.

We cannot simply inspect or fine our way to safety. With more than 7 million work sites in the country and only a few thousand inspectors, simple mathematics makes it clear that we cannot ever hope to inspect or sanction our way to greater job safety.

Cooperation, not confrontation, is essential in making our workplaces safer. The notion that employers care little about worker safety, or are prepared to sacrifice worker health in the pursuit of profit, is a dangerous myth.

In fact, most employers are concerned for the welfare of their employees and are fully prepared to comply with laws aimed at enhancing their safety on the job. When an employer takes steps to monitor and prevent workplace accidents, it should be rewarded and supported

Currently, there are more than 100 work sites participating in the VPP and actively pursuing VPP status in the state of Louisiana. Collectively, these sites employ nearly 25,000 workers. The program is a success.

One business in Denver, Colo., a small manufacturing company, provides a valuable example of cooperative partnership with OSHA. Employees at the company took ownership of the program and made a commitment to safety both at work and home. Their safety incidents have been reduced dramatically and they’re a better company because of their participation in VPP.

From Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, a VPP Merit site, to the more than 100 VPP work sites in Louisiana, this program has a proven track record. According the DOL, companies that participate in the VPP have approximately 52 percent fewer injuries and illnesses than their counterparts. There are significant direct cost savings with reduced insurance rates and reduced workers compensation claims.

I have introduced bipartisan legislation with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) to make VPP the law and expand it to include even more small businesses. Congress should protect funding for this program through both the budget and appropriations process. Our legislation reflects the correct and balanced approach to the goal of increased workplace safety that all of us want to achieve. Employers and workers deserve nothing less.

Sen. Enzi of Wyoming serves as the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.