Since 1997 a program exists in Puerto Rico that allows companies to regulate themselves on issues of health and safety in the workplace, with the workers' participation and approval of these regulatory measures. Think it sounds too good to be true? Well, maybe that is precisely the problem with the Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) – that it contradicts its own definition because it leaves in the hands of employers the establishment of health and safety parameters, with the supposed participation of the workers, and far from the eye of the state's regulatory agencies. All of this in exchange for less inspections and exemption from fines in the majority of cases.
"In Puerto Rico, the issue of safety and health is constitutionally guaranteed, which is why the program, which functions mostly in companies that are not unionized, presents a problem," according to labor lawyer Reinaldo Pérez. He questioned the "participation of the workers" in a climate in which jobs are scarce and any confrontation with the employer would be a lonely affair.
The VPP was created during the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan with the purpose of "recognizing and promoting excellence" in the workplace on the issues of health and safety. The program worked under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In Puerto Rico, it is known as PROSHA and it is under the Labor and Human Resources Department.
The goat watching over the lettuce patch
In order to enter the program, the companies and industries request a certification issued by PROSHA after making sure that the applicant complies with the requirements. According to the program, the workers, who promise to maintain a safe workplace, collaborate in the certification process.
Perez described the VPP as "a detour program for the corporations." If it is discovered that violations have been committed, they are given an opportunity to correct the problem and continue to enjoy the benefits.
As former Puerto Rico Labor Department head Román Velasco sees it, the industries "are freed of fines, but have to comply with the findings."
The program arises as a result of the local and U.S. authorities to effectively supervise the industries to ensure that they comply with safety and health standards. That way, they are encouraged to establish "superior systems of administering health and safety" that they should keep up-to-date for the inspections, which are done once a year or every 18, 24, 30, 42 or 60 months, depending on the case.
"The (Labor) department cannot inspect all the employers, especially those in the most dangerous industries," Velasco revealed referring to the pharmaceutical industry.
Safety is relaxed
"There is a type of relaxation... we verify that the programs are being complied with, certainly there is laxity, the law does not say that the employer has to go before OSHA to certify that he is complying," Velasco pointed out.
He explained that when the program was created it was understood that the self-regulation would take care of affairs that could not be taken care of by the state.
A 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warns in its conclusions that "OSHA's internal controls are not enough to ensure that only the qualified workplaces participate in the VPP."
But Ilsa Román, director of the voluntary program at PROSHA, assures that in Puerto Rico many companies do not participate because "we are too rigorous, we do very intense evaluations."
Román, Pérez and Velasco agreed separately that Puerto Rican laws are more rigorous and protective of workers that labor laws in the United States, which is there are greater controls here.
But Frank Zorilla, also a former labor secretary, called attention to the fact that "the only teeth that OSHA has are the fines."
In the 14 years that the program has been operating in Puerto Rico, some 25 industries or companies have participated in the Voluntary Protection Programs.
Only two "serious" cases
As of 1997, when the program was initiated, there have been only two findings of serious nature: one was a death in the parking lot of a business in Humacao that, according to PROSHA, was not related to the operation but was something "personal," and an incident in Positronics, in Ponce, which was resolved outside of court and of which it was not possible to obtain official information from PROSHA because it is confidential.
"There are no complaints because the program is designed precisely so that there are no complaints," Román said.
Myrna Maldonado, the director of PROSHA's Technical Advise Bureau, affirmed that Gov. Luis Fortuño's Republican administration did not increase the number of participants in the VPP program, although she accepted that "the Democrats are more restrictive" in establishing safety and health requirements for the businesses.
PROSHA has 34 inspectors in six area offices to inspect the construction industry, the government and the other industries, not just the VPP. When Yaminie Vázquez, director of the Inspection Bureau, was asked if that was enough, she said, "I can deal with that," hinting that she would need more personnel.
Eduardo Cordero, director of environmental health and safety at Pfizer, agreed that "OSHA has never had the resources to supervise" the industries in Puerto Rico.
According to Cordero, the program provides "the opportunity" to not see the government "as an enemy, now we are partners."
A mechanic who has worked in the Pfizer plant in Vega Baja for 10 years and who requested anonymity affirmed that for that industry "safety is more important than production." When asked, he said that "things have happened... but just the usual."
About the participation of employees, he said that it is not about getting the employees' approval (of security measures) "because what they are looking out for is the employee's safety." He said that he has not signed, nor has he heard of anyone who has done it, any waiver of responsibility on the part of the employer in case of any accidents.
As for the protocol to submit a complaint, he said that "I have not been interested in understanding it because I have not needed it working here."He affirmed that because it is a pharmaceutical company, Pfizer "is a target" of OSHA. He said that the agency's personnel conduct surprise inspection visits. He said that he does not fear reprisals from the company if he should complain. "If a person goes to OSHA, when they (the agency's personnel) come they will see that everything here is in accordance with what they demand."
Brenda Sepúlveda was in PROSHA for 20 years and directed the office. She described the program as "good" and explained the absence of complaints as due to the companies' complying with the program's requirements. "If complaints are not filed, it is because the company is complying."
"It is possible that they are being channeled internally, that is why there are no complaints," she said.
The Center for Investigative Journalism unsuccessfully requested information from the State Insurance Fund Corporation about any referrals they might have received from these industries. The information was promised, but had not arrived at the moment this publication was prepared.
*This is the Puerto Rico version of a story that the Center for Public Integrity published on a national level, and that is available through this link. This project is a journalistic effort that covers all the United States, and in which the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico participated through the Investigative News Network. You can reach the spanish version of the main story through this link.
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