Interview With John Henshaw

December 19, 2003
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Dear Subscriber,

INTERVIEW WITH JOHN HENSHAW

OSHA chief John Henshaw was confirmed by the Senate in August, 2001. He's now been in one of Washington's hottest seats for 31 months, going on a year longer than the average tenure of an OSHA administrator. ISHN interviewed the assistant secretary in his office at the Department of Labor on December 10, 2003.

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FUTURE OF THE PROFESSION

ISHN: You've been at OSHA for more than two years now, you've traveled extensively, talked to many, many people in the safety and health world. You have a great global view of the profession. What do you say to professionals who have concern about the future of their careers, given the decline in manufacturing, ongoing downsizing and increasing outsourcing?

Henshaw: Obviously, the opportunities are immense. We still have lots of opportunities.

ISHN: But some professionals don't think so. They see manufacturing moving overseas. They see many of the big hazards taken care of; there aren't the dragons out there to slay.

Henshaw: My best advice to the safety and health professionals is to view things as opportunities, not as a diminished world. Sure, hazards have gone down. But there are still fatalities, still injuries occurring. The people who are going to be a success are the ones who view things in the positive way.

The safety and health professionals who think it has to be like it was yesterday are the ones who get demoralized and say there are no opportunities. It is different than it was yesterday. But the smart ones are the ones saying, "OK, where's the next opportunity?" The glass is half full, because we can't stop until we have no injuries.

ISHN: How can a professional take advantage of the opportunities you see?

Henshaw: If you look at where the profession is going, it is getting more into the business realm. With our ability to gather data and monitor various elements of a business, we may have some breakthroughs on developing business cases for safety and health. We've said that in the past, maybe we had a few examples, but I think we're really on an early footing of showing a good business case around a lot of safety and health issues. Some of the ergonomic issues are a good example.

If you look at what makes a good company survive, it's safety and health, quality, morale, productivity, teams, all those things are elements of a great company. I think safety and health can be a more integral part and a more visible part of a management philosophy that creates the establishment that survives for years and years.

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McWANE

ISHN: But then how do you explain a company like McWane, Inc. (a pipe and valve manufacturer investigated in a series of New York Times articles and a PBS documentary in January, 2003 for a history of safety violations, injuries and fatalities)? On the business side, McWane was able to run their business very successfully for years without giving safety the kind of emphasis and visibility you mention.

Henshaw: There will always be those organizations that for whatever reason, they don't have the same pressures a lot of other businesses have. The pressures could be competitive pressure, could be regulatory pressure. That's where we have to step in and apply regulatory pressure. We ought to apply pressure to change the workplace, not just count fines and penalties.

There will always be those kinds of companies, I suppose, and what we've got to do is continue to find ways to put pressure on them to change.

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SELLING SAFETY

ISHN: What's your advice to a reader trying to sell plant management on the need for more safety investment when the safety record is already better than average? That's the case with many of our readers.

Henshaw: Safety builds on itself. What you did yesterday has to stay there to keep the performance where it is today.

I would make the argument that it's continuous improvement. Things change a little bit and what you thought worked to keep the injuries down may not work tomorrow. So we've got to constantly refresh and change (strategies).

Safety is not like a project that you do and walk away. It's something you live with every day. It's momentum. You've got to keep the energy going. You can't slow it down, or things will go back to where you don't want them.

As soon as you lay off, there are too many other pressures that are going to push back at safety and push it the wrong way.

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PERMISSIBLE EXPOSURE LIMITS

ISHN: Updating the PELs (permissible exposure limits for more than 400 substances) has been an ongoing story, in the background, during your time here. A task force outside of OSHA has been trying to work out a proposal. But what is OSHA itself doing right now in terms of updating PELs?

Henshaw: Obviously, we're interested in anything the task force can come up with. We'd certainly be interested in hearing some possible solutions, and would encourage them to keep thinking this through. Second, we are going through rulemaking with specific rules: silica, beryllium, hexavalent chromium, and those will have PELs.

Right now we're going on a chemical by chemical basis. We have the hoops that we have to jump through, we can't change those hoops.

ISHN: Why are you doing it chemical by chemical instead of perhaps taking a look at revising PELs for 10 or 20 chemicals, try to pick off the low-hanging fruit first?

Henshaw: I don't think there is low-hanging fruit with all the obstacles, with all the issues we have to deal with. By the time we go through the things we have to go through, it takes time. It takes a lot of time.

ISHN: Doesn't it frustrate you as an industrial hygienist to have been here for two years and not to have been able to do more on PELs?

Henshaw: Yes, I certainly wish we could. But we've got a system that we have to deal with, and I guess I wasn't fully aware of what that system was until I got here. So the frustration now has turned to, "that's the world we live in." I wish it was different, but right now that's the world we've got to live with.

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REACTIVE CHEMICALS

ISHN: Explain why OSHA decided to take the non-regulatory approach to dealing with the hazards of reactive chemicals. The American Society of Safety Engineers and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board both want you to set a new, separate standard for reactives.

Henshaw: Based on our prioritization of the major issues, and how to accomplish progress in reducing these events (relating to reactive chemicals), it doesn't warrant rulemaking at this time. There are other ways to accomplish success. We decided to pursue those and not include the rulemaking process.

It's really a matter of where can we get the biggest bang for the buck, given all the other things we have to do. And the idea was (with reactives), rulemaking didn't give us that. We think the approach we've laid out is the most effective way of getting there.

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STANDARDS-SETTING

ISHN: Why doesn't rulemaking give you that bang for the buck? OSHA is an agency that used to roll out so many rules.

Henshaw: The fact is you can't do everything, so you've got to figure out is there something you can do now in lieu of rulemaking that will give you at least some impact. Or if you go with rulemaking, will that supplant whatever else is on the agenda? Will you get a bigger bang for the buck?

You make calls on what's the best way to handle all the efforts the agency is involved with. After careful consideration, we added a couple of things on our regulatory agenda. Negotiated rulemaking on cranes and derricks. Explosives. Ionizing radiation — that's going to be more of a concern because of homeland security issues.

Explosives, I don't know how many events I've heard about, certainly gearing up for a Fourth of July celebrations. And the crane standard is 30-odd years old. The cranes we're using today are not the cranes we used 30 years ago. There is a lot of construction going on, a lot of hazards. This is a more significant issue in terms of rulemaking at this time versus some others.

ISHN: Is it no longer possible for OSHA to take a shotgun approach to standards-setting, and come out with broad rules like PELs or ergonomics or safety and health programs, given the system, the world you alluded to earlier?

So instead, what we see is a rifle shot approach, where OSHA focuses on a specific hazard, like cranes or explosives, because these kinds of smaller-scale rules are possible in this day and age. Does this make sense to you?

Henshaw: I don't know if that is categorically true in all cases. The kind of data we need to get, the kind of analysis we need to perform, oftentimes lends itself to some of the rifle shot kinds of things, specific issues, specific risks, where you can quantify the risk. It depends on the issue.

I'm not sure this is the way it will be in the future entirely. There may be some opportunities for having some broader rulemaking. It really depends on what kind of impact you have, what kind of reduction you can get for the cost associated with the rule.

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Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at djsafe@bellatlantic.net, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.

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