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Workers at plants billed as the nation’s safest are dying in preventable accidents: explosions, chemical releases, crane accidents and machinery-related crushing and asphyxiation, a new investigation by iWatch News finds.

There are 2,400 work sites across the country dubbed “model workplaces” by the federal government for their commitment to safety. But since 2000, at least 80 workers have died at these locales and investigators found serious safety violations in at least 47 cases, iWatch News discloses in the first in a series of reports on “Model Workplaces, Imperiled Workers.”

All of the workplaces are part of the Voluntary Protection Programs run by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The program was started during the Ronald Reagan administration on the theory that partnering with industry could improve workplace safety. Membership benefits include an exemption from the agency’s regular inspections. Participating sites range from chemical plants and refineries to shipyards and sawmills.

Supporters say VPP is a more effective way of getting companies to improve safety than traditional enforcement methods. Critics and former OSHA officials contend even one death at a “model” facility, coupled with safety violations, suggests a failure to meet the program’s goals.

Read the full story here.

A version of the story will appear on PBS Need to Know July 8. A second installment that focuses on some of the nation’s more dangerous industries will appear at on July 11.

Members of the Investigative News Network either contributed to this investigation or are publishing their own versions of the piece. They are: Centro de Periodismo, Connecticut Health Investigative Team, Fair Warning, Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting , New England Center for Investigative Reporting, Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, St. Louis Beacon, The Lens, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and WyoFile.

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