Four years ago, Marc Roudebush was only a couple weeks away from becoming a college graduate at the age of 46.

The El Dorado, Kan., resident did in fact earn his Bachelor of Science in Management from Baker University’s Wichita campus, but it was a posthumous honor. A production supervisor for Sherwin-Williams Co. in Andover, Kan., east of Wichita, Roudebush died on the job around 1 a.m. on July 1, 2007.

According to reports by the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and the Andover Police Department, Roudebush apparently reached toward a moving conveyor belt and became wedged between a metal control panel and a “rake,” which automatically sweeps cans of paint from a pallet to a conveyor that takes them to be filled and labeled. According to the OSHA report, it is believed that Roudebush went to “check on a jam or other problem with the cans” and that he was caught “when the rake automatically cycled to sweep another layer of cans onto the conveyer.”

Roudebush’s death came even as OSHA recognized Sherwin-Williams as a paragon of workplace safety; the job site earned entrance into the agency’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) less than a year before the fatal accident. And even though OSHA cited Sherwin-Williams for one “serious” violation – under a regulation governing machinery guarding – and fined the company $5,000 after Roudebush’s death, the plant earned the highest level of recognition through VPP – star status – a little more than a year after the accident.

Roudebush’s death is far from an isolated incident. Since 2000, at least 80 workers nationwide have died at these VPP sites, and investigators found serious safety violations in at least 47 of these cases, according to a newly published project by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News show. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is one of a number of journalism nonprofits around the country to contribute additional reporting to the project.

Roudebush’s widow, Debbie, said in a telephone interview that she didn’t dispute OSHA’s findings regarding her husband’s death. Although she did consult an attorney, she didn’t take any legal action “because it wasn’t going to change things.”

“In something like this, you don’t realize how much you’re not in control of anything,” she said of the time immediately after Marc died. “By the time I was notified, maybe two hours after he had been dead, his body was already in the coroner’s office.”

Congress authorized VPP, a national workplace safety program, in 1970. OSHA approved the first site in 1982.

In exchange for adhering to higher-than-required occupational safety and health standards, VPP companies are exempt from certain OSHA inspections. Acceptance into the program requires a detailed application and approval process.

The program is billed as a win-win-win for companies, employees and OSHA. Employees gain a safer work environment; companies see reductions in accidents, less down time and lower workers’ compensation premiums; OSHA gains partners who help it spread the message of workplace safety.

VPP, however, has been so popular and grown so fast that critics – and auditors from the federal Government Accountability Office – have questioned OSHA’s ability to effectively oversee VPP sites.

In the past eight years, the number of VPP sites in Kansas has increased from four to 26, with two more applications under review, according to OSHA records. The agency lists 2,424 sites nationwide.

Along with the 143-employee Andover site, which produces and ships paint products, Sherwin-Williams’ plant in Coffeyville, Kan., has entry-level “merit” status in VPP.

Overall, of 39 Sherwin-Williams locations operating in the United States, 23 have VPP status, according to Mike Conway, director of corporate communications at the company’s headquarters in Cleveland. There are 3,588 employees at the 23 VPP sites.

Conway noted that prior to Roudebush’s death, the Andover site had not experienced a fatality in 30 years. Coffeyville had operated for 60 years without a fatality, he said.

“When you examine a comprehensive timeline, the two facilities, combined, have operated 90 years without a fatality until the unfortunate accident in 2007,” Conway said.

Conway said the bottom line is that VPP works for Sherwin-Williams and has helped improve safety.

“Our workers’ efforts, combined with management’s commitment, delivered significant improvements to a safe work environment,” he said.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting was unable to reach a union representative in the Andover plant.

In OSHA Region VII, which includes Kansas, Matt Gaines is the VPP manager. Gaines was in the field conducting onsite inspections, according to an OSHA spokeswoman, and did not return calls.

Critics of OSHA’s ability to police VPP point to situations such as the death at Andover and say they are evidence that OSHA is unable to verify that its star performers continue to maintain high standards and safe workplaces. They add that the annual self-evaluation VPP companies conduct is not a good substitute for OSHA oversight.

Supporters say suggestions that VPP has grown too big too fast don’t apply in Region VII. Among them is Randy Bickford, safety manager for Westar Energy’s headquarters in Topeka.

Charles E. Adkins, regional OSHA administrator in Kansas City, Mo., “runs a top shop,” Bickford said. “Regional staff doesn’t cut any corners, either.”

Bickford is the liaison between OSHA and Westar’s three VPP sites—the Murray Gill Energy Center and the Gordon Evans Energy Center, both in Wichita; and the Jeffrey Energy Center in St. Mary’s, Kan.

The Gordon Evans and Jeffrey energy centers were recertified as VPP star workplaces in 2010 and the Murray Gill center is due for recertification in 2012, Bickford said. Following those recertifications, the Westar VPP sites will not have to participate in the weeklong exercise for five years, he said.

The commitment to apply for VPP status requires a strong, ongoing commitment by the company, its employees and any union representation, and OSHA, Bickford said.

The VPP application triggers a “wall-to-wall inspection” of the facility. OSHA gives companies 90-days to correct problems it finds. “Yes, we had some 90-day items that they found and we fixed them in that time,” Bickford said. “I don’t think there are many companies that don’t have some items.”

For Westar, Bickford said, the decision to be a part of VPP was in keeping with its business philosophy.

“At our company, it’s an opportunity to continue to get better,” he said. “It’s our philosophy that we should create the safest workplace we can possibly provide.

“VPP is all about going above and beyond what’s required….it’s an all-in deal….not a one-time deal. It’s an ongoing process.”

Paul Lira, business manager/financial secretary of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 304, which represents 300 Westar workers at the Jeffrey Energy Center, said VPP status brings about “a kind of peace with OSHA.”

Lira said OSHA presents itself to VPP sites on a different level.

“It isn’t that they come in looking for anything, and that’s where the partnership comes in,” he said. “They come in offering the benefit of their experience and expertise. It’s a positive interaction, not an adversarial one.”

Lira added that Local 304’s commitment to VPP is all about creating a safe work environment.

“I won’t say the job we do is dangerous. It’s not, but it could be,” he said, adding the safety improvements brought about by VPP “equate into me going home every night with all of my fingers and toes.”

The danger was certainly there for Marc Roudebush.

The co-workers who discovered him performed CPR during the approximately two-minute period before emergency personnel arrived. Roudebush was pronounced dead at the scene, according to the OSHA report.

Debbie Roudebush and one of Marc’s co-workers at Sherwin-Williams have started an annual golf tournament to raise funds for a scholarship in his memory. The award benefits adults at Baker’s Wichita Campus who earn their degrees while working full time and with a family. Marie Kurz, a business major from Wichita, recently received the 2011-12 scholarship.

Reached at her home in El Dorado, just days prior to the fourth anniversary of Marc’s death, Debbie Roudebush said he was “a good man, a decent man.”

Debbie said they “had been best friends for 13 or 14 years.” They were married in 2001. Their blended family of his two sons and her daughter has produced eight grandchildren.

She said OSHA notified her when its investigation began and that she subsequently received a three-page letter and then the full report.

A pond, remembrance garden and bench in Marc’s memory have been added outside the Sherwin-Williams facility in Andover, and Debbie has been back to the site a few times since the accident. On one visit, she talked to the three men who found Marc to thank them for their efforts.

She said an autopsy showed no drugs or alcohol in Marc’s system, adding that the report provided some of the tragedy’s only humor.

“The first line of the report says ‘This is the autopsy of a well-fed white male,’ ” she said. “That was the only thing funny in it.”

Marc Roudebush is still remembered fondly by Susan Smith, an associate professor of business management at Baker. Smith, the instructor in Roudebush’s last class, remembers him as a gentleman and a quite leader.

“He didn’t always speak up in class, but when he did, it was worth listening to,” Smith said. “People felt a connection with Marc.”

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