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New OSHA boss meets the press

Just three weeks after his Senate confirmation hearing, new OSHA chief John Henshaw held a one-hour roundtable with about two dozen reporters. He said it was a "life-long dream" to be part of the agency, and said his main focus will be the "value-add stuff."

"I'm not interested in making wholesale changes in the agency," he said.

Showing his private sector roots (a 25-year career in industry as an industrial hygienist), Henshaw made frequent use of business terms such as "selling value," "delivering services," "improving performance levels," "focusing on results" and "getting the job done."

OSHA's boss outlined four main priorities:

1) Have OSHA take a leadership role in "advancing the dialog of safety and health" with the help of unions, business trade groups, professional societies and private companies. Henshaw mentioned that he's already met with the National Association of Manufacturers and Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO's director of safety and health.

2) Maintain strong and effective enforcement, which has "got to be the first and foremost strategy, the foundation" for all OSHA does, he said. "Clearly there are establishments that only respond to deterrents, and we'll search them out."

3) Focus heavily on compliance assistance, where Henshaw sees "enormous opportunities." He explained that "maybe the law of diminishing returns has been reached on the enforcement side," while compliance assistance will provide more return on the dollars invested at this point. "There are employers out there who have no idea what the value of safety and health is," he said.

4) Voluntary efforts also present many opportunities, according to Henshaw. "We want to partner, work on the same page, on the same issues" as the trade associations, unions and professional societies, he said. Perhaps OSHA could arrange pro bono work for consultants from professional societies with small businesses, he said. "Give a little consultation away to stimulate the market, with clients perhaps paying for longer-term assistance." Henshaw offered another idea: Possibly create a retired executive corps of safety and health experts to sell the value of safety and health by showing bottom line benefits.

What about standards? Henshaw was non-committal, saying OSHA's entire regulatory agenda is under review. "We're in the throes of deciding what we really want to work on." A new regulatory plan will be released this fall.

Ergonomics? "Clearly this administration is going to deal with ergonomics," Henshaw said. "But we've said everything we can possibly say" until the administration's official ergo plan is announced in September.

Permissible exposure limits? "A serious, very difficult issue that needs to be addressed," he said, adding that experts inside and outside OSHA are working on an "array of possibilities."

Safety and health program rules? "Whether we go forward or not with a standard, I don't know at this point," he said.

Saying he's proud to be a safety and health professional first, not a politician, Henshaw nonetheless said he was ready for the rough-and-tumble of Washington life. Placate the unions? "If we show results, that will keep criticism down. We'll prove to them that compliance assistance works," he said. Answer to conservatives who want to de-emphasize enforcement? "I've had to sell the value of safety and health my whole life, show that it's good business," he said. In the private sector, Henshaw said he competed for resources with other departments, and had to sell CEOs and vice presidents on the value of safety and health.

"I'll focus on getting the job done," he said. "Getting results, that's the reality I want to deal with."

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