Henshaw Prescribes Prevention at AOHCE

OSHA Administrator John Henshaw's self-deprecating humor, wry comments and message of prevention earned him more than a few kudos at the American Occupational Health Conference and Exhibition (AOHCE) in Chicago this week.

OSHA Administrator John Henshaw''s self-deprecating humor, wry comments and message of prevention earned him more than a few kudos at the American Occupational Health Conference and Exhibition (AOHCE) in Chicago this week.

"My kids say I''ve been in safety and health all my life," he told a crowded amphitheater at Chicago''s mammoth McCormick Place. "I say, ''Not yet. I''ve still got a few years left!''"

Although Henshaw''s message to the occupational health professionals focused mostly on partnering and prevention, he said OSHA had no plans to back off on enforcement, saying it would be "strong, fair and effective," adding that enforcement was the only answer for "the small number of workplaces out there that don''t want to do the right thing."

For the other employers - the ones that are committed to making their workplace as safe as possible - OSHA plans a course of outreach, education, compliance assistance and partnerships. Better to offer compliance assistance and education, said Henshaw, than to help create a business culture that allows "bad actors" to thrive.

"If we cite the same employer three times for the same violation, then we''ve failed as an agency," admitted Henshaw. "That''s a workplace that incorporates the penalty structure into the cost of doing business and as a safety and health professional, that''s repulsive to me." The point of workplace safety regulations isn''t to punish employers after employees are injured, but to prevent them from happening in the first place, he said. Fines and citations are a last resort.

He admitted during questioning from audience members that the standard-setting process was cumbersome and could use improvement. Many members of the occupational safety and health community were surprised when OSHA came out with its most recent regulatory agenda on Dec. 3, 2001, which sets the stage for agency actions in the coming months. No major new regulations are listed in the final rule stage, and some important standards, like safety and health programs, no longer appear on the agenda.

Henshaw said he was surprised by the thickness of the regulatory agenda when he joined the agency in August. "The regulatory agenda is not a wish list," he said, "but a ''to do'' list." Henshaw made it clear that during his watch, the items that appear on the regulatory agenda will receive the full attention and resources of the agency, and he expects them to be acted on, not left to languish for years.

Which brings us to his comments on OSHA''s ergonomic guidelines. He began his remarks about ergonomics by quipping, "I''m having repetitive thought problems." Noting he had a hearing scheduled before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee this week, Henshaw noted, "Now that''s stress!" (For more on the Senate hearing, see the article "Democrats Attack OSHA Voluntary Ergo Plan."

He said the agency planned to create "a few" industry- and task-specific ergonomic guidelines, along the lines of those developed for the meatpacking industry. Although the agency is promoting education and partnering as a way to tackle ergonomics, Henshaw claimed OSHA wouldn''t hesitate to cite employers for ergonomics violations under the General Duty clause. He admitted the agency has not had much luck in the past when citing employers for ergonomic violations using the General Duty clause, adding that more education is needed for agency inspectors so that those cases will hold up if they are appealed to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

"I don''t care how the job gets done," said Henshaw of reducing musculoskeletal injuries and disorders. "My concern is that it gets done."

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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