As federal regulators review a controversial program exempting government designated “model workplaces” from regular safety checks, newly released U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration records detail significant safety risks, injuries and even deaths at the sites across Massachusetts.
OSHA, the federal overseer of workplace safety, has also allowed some Massachusetts employers to retain their “Voluntary Protection Program” (VPP) status even after serious safety problems have been exposed or workers have been killed, according to more than 1,000 documents obtained by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting under a federal Freedom of Information Act request.
The VPP designation frees employers from regular health and safety inspections, and they are largely left to police themselves, a flaw that has contributed to the death of at least two Massachusetts workers, some critics said.
“If you're a VPP program, that should never happen,” said James Lee, a trustee with the American Postal Workers Union Local 497 and a member of the OSHA investigating team that reviewed a horrific 2006 fatal accident at a U.S. Postal facility in Springfield, Mass.
“This would never have occurred if (OSHA) came in more frequently,” Lee said.
OSHA rarely strips VPP sites of their special status, even after violations are found or fatal tragedies occur, like the death of postal worker Robert J. Scanlon in Springfield and the 2004 death of a 34-year-old mother of three who was accidentally sucked into an adhesive coating machine at a Spencer, Mass., manufacturing firm, the OSHA documents show.
Currently 41 Massachusetts employers participate in the highly touted VPP program, including power, chemical and nuclear plants, military and postal facilities and biotechnology firms. Those worksites given the highest VPP rating are subject to OSHA re-evaluations every three to five years; those with lower ratings every 18 months to 2 years, according to the program guidelines.
GE Transportation Aircraft Engines in Lynn has maintained its VPP status, despite a $14,000 fine last year for failing to assess and document the condition of a covered piping system that exposed workers to explosion hazards, OSHA records show.
Workers at defense contractor Raytheon’s Andover plant, a VPP designee since 2009, were exposed to several electrical hazards that could have led to electrical shocks, burns or even death, OSHA inspectors found last year. The hazards were discovered within a year of Raytheon's disclosure in a 2010 company safety report that its Andover facility was one of three Raytheon plants among the company’s U.S. sites with the highest injury rate.
The release of the heavily redacted OSHA records comes in the wake of two recently announced federal reviews of the program, which started in 1982 to reward employers who “achieved exemplary occupational safety and health,” according to OSHA's program description.
More than 80 workers have died at VPP sites since 2000, according to an investigation published last year by the Washington D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity. Following the report, the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General announced an upcoming audit of the program. OSHA is also conducting its own “top-to-bottom” internal review.
In addition, the federal Government Accounting Office released a report last month faulting OSHA for failing to give clearer guidance to field inspectors about how safety incentive programs for employers like VPP should operate.
Despite numerous requests, OSHA officials did not respond to written questions or return phone calls seeking interviews with NECIR.
Fines slashed following safety violations, including a fatality
Despite at least six “serious” alleged violations — offenses that OSHA believes could cause death or serious injury — against VPP workplaces in Massachusetts since 2001, OSHA has slashed fines in almost all of those cases, including some by as much as 75 percent. Even after finding these problems, though, the agency either approved the site into the program or renewed its status, records show. The OSHA records provide no details about why the fines were reduced.
Laura Pacquette, a 34-year-old mother of three, had worked at FLEXcon, a plastic film and sheet manufacturer in Spencer, Mass., for nine years when she was accidentally pulled into an adhesive coating machine on Dec. 11, 2004. She died of crushing injuries two days later.
OSHA's investigation of the accident found FLEXcon failed to provide adequate guards on the equipment “to protect the operator and other employees from hazards created by a crushing action." The company later corrected the hazard and was fined $6,300, an amount reduced by OSHA to $5,800 just four months later.
FLEXcon was never dropped from the VPP program. Today, with no recorded OSHA violations since that incident, FLEXcon remains part of VPP, a shining example of what Michael Engel, the company's Chief Operating Officer, said in a press release announcing the firm's 15th year as a VPP participant was “proof of the outstanding dedication and commitment of FLEXcon employees in helping to create and maintain a safe and healthful working environment.”
Three other VPP companies in the Bay State — beverage maker Coca Cola in Northampton, defense contractor Raytheon in Andover and chemical manufacturer Solutia Inc. near Springfield — have each been cited for “serious” violations by OSHA since 2003.
All three were ordered to pay fines ranging from $2,275 to $22,000. OSHA later reduced those fines for Coca Cola and Raytheon, in one case by more than 75 percent. The three companies remain on OSHA's VPP list.
Danger and a death at Massachusetts postal facilities
Robert J. Scanlon was 58 when he was crushed to death on Nov. 8, 2006, after being pinned between a truck and a trailer at the Postal Service's Logistics and Distribution Center in Springfield. The now-closed facility was among the 130 postal sites across the country designated as VPP, the largest group of any employer in the U.S.
But before and after Scanlon’s death, there were concerns about safety at the Springfield worksite. Two months before Scanlon's deadly accident, OSHA cited that postal distribution center for two serious health and safety violations. A postal “clean up team” at that facility lacked adequate protective gear and were not properly trained in the use of a chlorine bleach solution when they were called in to mop up a chemical spill. Some of the employees suffered burns and dermatitis as a result of using inadequate protective gloves, OSHA records show. The postal service was fined $975 for those violations.
Two months after Scanlon's death, OSHA again cited the U.S. Postal Service, this time for failing to follow recognized safety practices in connection with the fatality. A $7,000 fine was also imposed. The fine was $3,786.33 below the $10,786.33 average amount assessed to employers in 2006 for safety violations resulting in death, according to a 2007 study conducted by The Massachusetts AFL-CIO, the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health and the Western Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.
The study, titled “Dying for Work in Massachusetts: The Loss of Life and Limb in Massachusetts Workplaces,” also found that OSHA was so understaffed and underfunded, it would have taken about 117 years for OSHA inspectors to check each workplace under its jurisdiction in Massachusetts alone.
In the aftermath of Scanlon's death, OSHA found several health and safety violations, many of which likely existed beforehand. Among those violations was shoddy record keeping, inadequate employee training, poor lighting conditions, an improperly working intercom system and inadequate safety equipment, said Lee, the union official. Investigators also found that Scanlon was not using safety gear because the required orange vest and flashlight apparently had not been returned to its proper storage area, Lee said.
Scanlon's family did not return several calls requesting comment.
Lee is not alone in his criticism of the program. Other union representatives said the VPP program allows OSHA to exempt businesses from certain evaluations for up to five years, leaving a regulatory gap that can lead to lax safety.
“When VPP first started, the result was extremely positive,” said Timothy Dwyer, president of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union Local 301, rattling off a list of safety improvements that included the purchase of hydraulic equipment designed to lift heavy pallets or large mail-filled bins, easing the physical strain on mail handlers. Dwyer said the union embraced the VPP concept, convinced that it would bring more safety programs into the workplace.
Then several years ago, union officials had second thoughts. With fewer workplace checks by OSHA required under the VPP program, it started to look like safety was being compromised, they said. Regularly scheduled maintenance was being postponed due to budget cutbacks, worrying union officers concerned about accidents. Without the regular OSHA checks, they wondered if safety was being compromised. Soon, unions at the Springfield VPP facility began talking about getting rid of the elite safety program in favor of more conventional OSHA inspections.
“We thought it was a joke,” David Sarnacki, Local 497's maintenance craft director said of the VPP program. "We felt that after a fatality, why were we still part of this?”
It was the economy, rather than the union, however, that finally ended the Springfield facility's VPP program when budget cuts forced a merger with another postal center about two years ago.
Union officials claim they could see the impact cost-cutting measures were having on safety long before that merger as the postal service began grappling with billions of dollars in losses.
Machinery once quickly repaired was not undergoing regular maintenance while staff cuts along with increased demand for quicker mail processing was keeping malfunctioning machines in operation, Dwyer said.
“It's a matter of ignoring procedures because procedures cost money,” he noted. ”An adherence to safety issues is not a high priority for the Postal Service right now.”
Postal officials dispute that contention, however, saying employee health and safety remains a top priority. They declined further comment.
Yet postal workers said they continue to grapple with unsafe conditions, particularly around electrical issues.
Sally Davidow, spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union, said beginning in July 2010, OSHA fined the U.S. Postal service more than $6 million after finding that it willfully violated safety standards by exposing workers to serious and potentially fatal shock hazards and burns at 350 processing and distribution centers nationwide. It remains unclear how many of the 29 processing and distribution centers designated as VPP sites were among those plagued by electrical hazards, Davidow said.
Management and union views on VPP effectiveness
Yet despite those violations, many union and company representatives in Massachusetts said participation in the VPP program has made a safer workplace for everyone, provided that management and employees can work cooperatively with OSHA to solve safety issues.
Cindy Raspiller, director of environmental health and safety for Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, including Raytheon's Andover facility, called participation in the VPP program “a transforming process” that has not only produced safer work conditions but also helped contribute to cost savings.
“We had a good, solid compliance program to begin with,” she said. ”What VPP did was take us beyond that.”
Yet just two years before entering the VPP program in 2009, Raytheon's Andover plant faced violations labeled “serious” by OSHA.
In February 2007, an employee at Raytheon's Andover facility lost his fingers while servicing a machine. Just four months later in June 2007, another employee at the same plant suffered burns to his face while uncapping a hot radiator on a lawnmower. Then, in 2009 after gaining VPP status, the Andover facility was cited again for exposing employees to electrical hazards.
Despite those violations, the question for some is not whether the VPP program works, but whether there is a commitment to make it work at all.
“You have to have a full commitment by management and labor to achieve safety,” said.
Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition of Occupational Safety and Health. ”Unless you have a strong union health and safety program, you end up with companies who portray themselves as safer than they naturally are or who are unable to identify the full range of health and safety issues.”
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is a non-profit newsroom based at Boston University. This story was done in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and the Investigative News Network.