Most business owners in the construction industry have heard of a VPP site, or Voluntary Protection Program.

It is a program offered by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) whereby they establish cooperative relationships at workplaces that have implemented a comprehensive safety and health management system. Approval into VPP is OSHA's official recognition of the outstanding efforts of employers and employees who have achieved exemplary occupational safety and health.
To qualify as a subcontractor, often you have your employees take the OSHA ten-hour course and sit through extra safety meetings. But that's where the safety emphasis usually stops. What most business owners don't know is that VPP is now available for construction companies, and if your company is serious about being successful, you should be serious about learning what VPP is all about, and if it is right for your business.

Voluntary Protection Program

OSHA understands that most successful companies not only care about their workers, but realize how much injuries really cost and understand it is more cost effective to spend the money to prevent them.  VPP is OSHA's official recognition of those companies that enforce safety regulations.

In 1979, California began the first VPP experimental program.  It was so effective that in 1982 OSHA formally announced the VPP and approved the first site.  Originally the program was only available to private companies, but, in 1998, federal worksites also became eligible for VPP.

At the 20th annual Voluntary Protection Programs Participants' Association (VPPPA) conference, in Las Vegas, NV, OSHA administrator, John Henshaw, told the audience of OSHA's new pilot program. Excerpts of the speech appeared in the Aug. 31, 2004, Federal Register:

"The construction industry has not been able to take advantage of the benefits of VPP participation, mainly due to eligibility requirements since VPP was originally designed for fixed workplaces," Henshaw told the participants. "We've learned a great deal from our ongoing relationships with the construction industry, labor and VPPPA, and OSHA has crafted a program we believe will maintain VPP's high performance standards while, at the same time, respond to the industry's unique needs. We believe our proposal has the potential to significantly contribute to reductions in injuries, illnesses and fatalities in one of the nation's most hazardous industries."

The Voluntary Protection Program for Construction (VPPC) pilot started in OSHA's Region 5 in 2005, and in October of 2007, the VPPC was enacted, opening up the VPP program to the construction industry, general contractors, and subcontractors alike across the country.

The VPP program has been so successful because on average, VPP sites have a days away restricted or transferred (DART) injury rate 52 percent below the average for their industry. VPP sites have set strict requirements for subcontractors and spread the message of safety, and how important it is. According to OSHA, "Fewer injuries and illnesses mean greater profits as workers' compensation premiums and other costs plummet. Entire industries benefit as VPP sites evolve into models of excellence and influence practices industry-wide." 

VPP Company Case Study: Repcon Inc.

Repcon Inc., a VPP company, is based in Corpus Christi, TX, and has as over 1600 employees with both projects and offices across the country. Business is focused mainly on construction in the petrochemical, refining, chemical and utility industries. Their client list includes giants such as BP, ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobile and Shell, just to name a few.

Repcon's journey to VPP started in 2002 when they decided to start actively seeking partnerships with OSHA.  Knowing that incidents, injuries and illness decrease profits, Repcon already had a safety culture in place which kept employees involved in every step of the safety process, but they wanted to do even more to increase the effectiveness of their safety program.  VPP was out of the question at that time because it was only available for sites such as the refineries they worked at, but not for a mobile workforce like Repcon that is only in one location for five or six weeks maximum.  Repcon was invited to be one of ten contractors to participate in the OSHA/ABC Contractor VPP Challenge recognizing safety excellence in the construction industry.  Repcon successfully completed the challenge in September 2005, a process which took over two years.

Repcon vice president of  safety, health and personnel, Mike Blundell, along with president, R. E. Parker, were in Washington, DC to receive their certificate for the OSHA/ABC VPP challenge, the Assistant Secretary of Labor asked Parker if there was anything OSHA could do for Repcon.  Parker said that he would like for OSHA to give companies with mobile workforces like Repcon the ability to participate in the official VPP program.  Possibly heeding those words along with others from the industry, in October 2007, OSHA kicked off the VPP Mobile Workforce Program which Repcon was officially accepted into earlier that year in March, with the flag presentation ceremony taking place in June for Repcon's OSHA's Region 6 locations.  Blundell also said that in April, Repcon's paperwork for the VPP Mobile Workforce was sent to Washington, DC for final approval, for their locations within OSHA's Region 7.

The reason OSHA's VPP program is so strict is because they are focused on employee safety and health in so many industries. "OSHA doesn't know the specifics of what you do, you know what you do. It is your responsibility to use OSHA's regulations as minimum guidelines in developing a safety process that provides a safe working environment for your employees." Blundell said. "Normally the safety culture change is the hardest for a company, but we had that in place already. The challenge for Repcon is instilling that safety culture in their new employees as they continue to grow in an ever-changing industry."

The hard work has paid off for Repcon, just as OSHA statistics show for other VPP companies.  Blundell went on to say their total recordable incident rate last year was 0.62 with no lost time.  In addition they have saved quite a bit of money on workers comp, with an experience modified rate of only 0.51.

A 0.62 is an total recordable incident rate number almost unseen in large construction companies, especially those in the petrochemical and refinery construction industries. Safety must come from the top down and words must be backed by action.  If done effectively and consistently as a core value, incidents will drop and profits will rise.  Repcon is a perfect example of that idea, and their commitment to safety can be summed up by the words of Parker displayed prominently on the Repcon website, "No project is considered successful unless it is injury and incident free."

Glenn Taylor, OSHA's Region 7 assistant regional administrator, states, "VPP Mobile workforce and VPPC is relatively new. OSHA was notified by the national office that Repcon wanted to expand the VPP program to Region 7 and because of their status as a VPP company in another region, the process went relatively quickly.

Repcon is the only VPP mobile workforce company in our region because the program is still relatively new and many business owners still do not know about the program availability.

For business owners interested in the program OSHA works with the company on the application process which typically lasts three to six months," says Taylor. "They will be held to the same parameters as a regular VPP site but with the specifications of their specific VPP program.  I encourage companies that are interested in the VPP to apply because it can only make their company better."

Many VPP businesses have the sign outside their office or manufacturing facility replaced with a large "VPP" logo with the name of the business smaller on top.  That is the weight that VPP status holds. VPP status is an elite designation with less than 0.1 percent of companies achieving this recognition. VPP certifies the workplace has a proactive safety and health program, which includes management systems, employee involvement, worksite analysis and hazard prevention programs. In short, VPP is the commitment to go beyond compliance to achieve workplace safety.

VPP Company Case Study: RR Donnelley & Sons Company

Many large and very successful businesses outside of the construction arena have already figured out how VPP can help their bottom line and client relations. RR Donnelley & Sons Company, a print-manufacturing facility, is one such business that has been awarded VPP "Star" certification by the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Administration. RR Donnelley's Lynchburg plant is the largest gravure printing facility in the United States to be VPP certified, and is the fourth RR Donnelley print-manufacturing facility to receive VPP Star certification. The others include RR Donnelley's facility in Reno, NV., which is the only other VPP certified gravure printing plant, as well as facilities in Roanoke, VA., and Senatobia, MS.

"RR Donnelley strives to continuously improve workplace health and safety," said John Paloian, group president, publishing and retail services. "Achieving VPP Star status requires a committed management team, an engaged workforce and continuous improvement. But it really comes down to a single factor: the quality of our employees. We are very proud of our team in Lynchburg, and of all RR Donnelley employees who understand that protecting our employees and preserving our environment reflects who RR Donnelley is and helps to differentiate us from the competition."

Certification to the Star Program at RR Donnelley's Lynchburg facility was achieved, in part, as a result of injury and illness rates that are below the national average for the gravure industry. This high level of performance was attained and is maintained through health and safety programs that are self-sufficient in their ability to control workplace hazards.

Once a company is accepted into the VPP, there is still work to be done. If incident rates rise, a company can be rejected or asked to resign from VPP.  RR Donnelley Nevada production facility has been recently recertified with VPP Star Status.

Star certifications are the highest that OSHA grants. These certifications reflect the cooperative relationship between OSHA and these RR Donnelley facilities, each of which has implemented comprehensive safety and health management systems. As does RR Donnelley overall, these facilities continue to maintain injury and illness rates that are well below the national average for the printing industry.

"Earning recertification is especially challenging," said John Paloian, RR Donnelley's Chief Operating Officer. "Continuous improvement is an important part of the elite Star certification. RR Donnelley's employees in Reno have again raised the bar for safety performance, which we regard as the first and most important measure of operational excellence."

Michael Manzella, RR Donnelley vice president environmental health and safety, added, "For our nearly 65,000 employees worldwide, safety is the most important job. This Star certification recognizes the depth of our employees' commitment to excellence in helping to develop, implement and follow best practices."

VPP status, especially in construction, does and will set you off from the competition, reduce workers' compensation costs, reduce injuries and illness, and increase employee morale and satisfaction. When the numbers are written out on paper there is no argument.  The investment in time and money is well worth the long term pay off.

Construction Business Owner, June 2008