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Regulators on a short leash?

EPA Director Christine Todd Whitman cracked up journalists and politicians at Washington's annual Gridiron Dinner when the former governor of New Jersey joked to the crowd, "I used to be someone," according to a report in Newsweek magazine. She went on to talk about the "folding chair in the corner" she has at cabinet meetings, and the huge number of hits that turn up on an Internet search using the words "Whitman" and "overruled."

Whitman reportedly enjoys good relations with the White House and took the EPA job knowing the limitations but still believing she could make a difference, according to the Newsweek story.

OSHA chief John Henshaw isn't cracking jokes, but some of his friends in the safety and health field see parallels with Whitman's position.

"The White House has him on a very short leash," says one source. "I think they are afraid he will start talking about some of his ideas - good ones - and then they will have to backpedal. So they keep him pretty close to the company line. It's too bad."

Henshaw's first months at OSHA have been marked by pep talks about the agency's potential to lead a "national dialog" on workplace safety and health, and responding to the 9/11 attacks. Recently, he's offered more details on how OSHA can take the lead in helping businesses understand the value of safety beyond compliance. He's also announced an enforcement plan to tackle ergonomics problems in nursing homes.

OSHA's chief has been a solid team player, staunchly defending President Bush's 2003 fiscal OSHA budget, even though it cuts 87 positions and funding by one percent, and deflecting any and all questions about the administration's ergonomics policy following last year's scuttled attempt at a standard.

What if?

What might the professionally trained industrial hygienist do if given more slack? One source says Henshaw might go even further in cutting back on enforcement in favor of more compliance assistance. Coming from the corporate world, he sees a lot of wasted time and resources in enforcement, says this source. But politics - the potential outrage of unions and liberal Democrats - demand a minimum of about 35,000-36,000 federal inspections annually. In OSHA's early years, more than twice that many inspections were conducted.

Like other OSHA chiefs with corporate backgrounds, such as Jerry Scannell who came from Johnson & Johnson in the late 1980s, Henshaw is frustrated at times by the slow pace of government, according to sources. After working decades in the chemical industry, "he's used to the corporate style of sitting down, analyzing a problem, deciding what to do and doing it," says one source.

But like Whitman, Henshaw took his job because he believes he can make improvements at a much-maligned agency, and there's no sign he's ready to back off. One source says he's in the office from six in the morning until ten at night, and working weekends.

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