Hearing Henshaw Out: OSHA Administrator Gets His Say

When OSHA Administrator John Henshaw appeared before a senate subcommittee, his testimony was cut short. Here's what he planned to say.

When John Henshaw, administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) testified Feb. 27 before the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Safety and Training, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN), who chairs the subcommittee, politely cut him off. (For the complete story on the hearing, see the Occupationalhazards.com article, "Senate Hearing Reveals the Dark Side of the American Dream".) There was a lot of testimony for the subcommittee to hear, and a limited time available.

During the part of his written testimony the subcommittee heard, Henshaw said from 1992 to 2000, the overall injury/illness incidence rate dropped by 31 percent. He admitted, however that the Bureau of Labor Statistics report on fatalities for the year 2000 shows that 815 Hispanic or Latino workers, including 494 foreign-born Hispanic or Latino workers, died as a result of job-related injuries - an 11.6 percent increase from the previous year.

He also noted that Hispanics or Latinos accounted for a disproportionate number of workplace fatalities in 2000, 13.8 percent, compared with their proportion of employment, which was 10.7 percent.

"This appears to be largely due to the fact that Hispanics or Latinos are disproportionately employed in the more dangerous industries," Henshaw testified. "For example, the construction industry accounts for about 7 percent of all employment, but 20 percent of fatalities. Hispanics or Latinos comprise almost 15 percent of construction employment, well above their representation in the workforce overall."

Although OSHA and the Department of Labor (DOL) have been criticized by groups representing low-wage and immigrant workers for a lack of quick action to help reduce the number of fatalities and injuries among those worker populations, some area OSHA offices appear to be doing a more thorough job of reaching out to at-risk workers.

Henshaw''s planned testimony, much of which was skipped over during the subcommittee hearing, notes that a number of OSHA employees in local offices are bilingual and they help Spanish-speaking and other non-English-speaking workers access OSHA''s outreach resources, complaint and other services.

In Region II, which includes New York and New Jersey, OSHA worked closely with churches and community organizations representing immigrants. For example, in Central New Jersey, OSHA worked with the Puerto Rican Congress, attending its annual conference and providing literature and information about the agency. Also in that region, OSHA participated in an alliance begun in 1995 between the Archdiocese of Newark, DOL''s Wage and Hour Division and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) to address the pay/benefits and health and safety conditions faced by workers in the apparel trades. OSHA also contributed material to curriculum developed and presented to every middle and high school student in the Newark, N.J., archdiocese.

Local area offices in Florida distribute a variety of educational tools written in Spanish, including a poster depicting the four major construction hazards, a packet card explaining the dangers of working with overhead power lines and a pamphlet on ways to eliminate excavation hazards. OSHA teamed with Florida''s consultation agency, which provides free safety and health advice to smaller businesses, to offer two 10-hour construction classes in the Fort Lauderdale area. OSHA met with various organizations of Hispanic workers to emphasize the extremely high number of construction fatalities in southern Florida.

The results reported in Florida make it obvious that such outreach efforts have an impact. Between 1998 and 2000, the number of falls decreased by one-third, and fatalities caused by contact with overhead power lines dropped 60 percent during that period.

In Fort Worth, OSHA has provided a 10-hour course on construction safety, conducted in Spanish, and has developed a movable workplace safety billboard in Spanish that is being displayed throughout the area. The Fort Worth office also worked with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to coordinate courses in Spanish for a safety seminar.

OSHA''s Houston-North office uses Spanish-speaking compliance officers to interpret employee complaints and to interact with Hispanic workers, particularly on construction inspections. The Dallas office has worked with the Mexican consulate to train Hispanic workers, conducting 8-hour seminars on the leading causes of construction fatalities for Hispanic contractors and their subcontractors.

OSHA Region VII has translated the Fall Protection Pocket Guide and other safety cards into Spanish and maintains a library of training videos in Spanish addressing hazards such as lead exposure, bloodborne diseases and lockout/tagout. OSHA''s Region IX in the western United States maintains an 800 number complaint and technical assistance line that provides information in Spanish, Korean and Tagalog.

OSHA now has a list of both federal and state OSHA employees who are fluent in Spanish. Henshaw said he plans to expand that list to include other languages. OSHA''s toll-free, 1-800 number, which is used to report emergencies to the agency, is now available in Spanish. OSHA is also seeking to employ staff that speaks languages other than Spanish.

In addition to national and regional programs, there are 26 states that operate their own occupational safety and health programs. Many of them are reaching out to the Hispanic and foreign-born population, too. For example, California, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington have produced materials designed for agricultural workers whose primary language is Spanish. Each of these states maintains a staff of bilingual employees. New Jersey''s on-site consultation program has staffers who can provide the service in Spanish.

"Although we have made progress, we believe that a single death is one too many," Henshaw admitted to the subcommittee. "As Secretary Chao has said, immigrants are the dreamers who come to America for a new start and a brighter future. We have a responsibility to protect these individuals from on-the-job dangers."

For a complete version of Henshaw''s planned testimony, go to www.osha.gov/OshDoc/Testimony_data/T20020227.html

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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