Is OSHA Stepping Outside its Traditional Areas of Jurisdiction?

John Henshaw, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, said he didn't need a lawyer to lecture him about jurisdiction when he got a call from the National Park Service late last year. What he heard on the other end of the line made him angry enough to take action.

The caller from the Park Service had an important question for Henshaw: Lynn Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, and two grandchildren were going to be raised 40 feet in the air on a boom to light a Christmas tree. Did OSHA have jurisdiction, the caller asked.

"Well, I got angry and said some things I probably shouldn't have said," Henshaw admitted to an audience at the American Occupational Health Conference in Atlanta this week. "I didn't call the lawyers to ask about jurisdiction. I asked myself: Is that a safety risk? Is there a way to reduce risk?"

"Let me tell you," he confided, "They were tied off."

Henshaw went on to say there were several areas OSHA plans to focus efforts to reduce injuries, illnesses and fatalities. The fact the agency does not have direct jurisdiction in these areas - motor vehicle safety (Department of Transportation and affiliated departments), workplace violence (local law enforcement agencies) and homeland security (Department of Homeland Security) doesn't faze him.

When you examine the fatalities for motor vehicle accidents and workplace violence, "the statistics are alarming," said Henshaw. While OSHA cannot change traffic laws or stop workers or outsiders from bring guns or other weapons into the workplace, the agency can take a leadership role in helping employers to reduce and eliminate those injuries and fatalities.

Saying he was a sailor, Henshaw equated the experience of working within the government and with existing agencies to reduce injuries and illnesses to going for a sail. "I can't do anything about the wind," he said. "I have no control over that. But I can adjust my sails for maximum forward progress."

He noted that at the World Trade Center site, although OSHA did not have enforcement jurisdiction, the agency did provide guidance and information and served as a resource for contractors. For such a large worksite with so many workers from so many different companies doing dangerous work, said Henshaw, the recordable injury and illness rate was low, much lower than for worksites in similar SIC codes related to demolition work.

Occupational safety is "all about prevention, first and foremost," claimed Henshaw. Just because the agency doesn't have jurisdiction doesn't mean it can't help to prevent injuries and fatalities.

"Our measure of success [at OSHA] is how many illnesses and fatalities have we prevented," he said.

More details about OSHA's Strategic Management Plan, possibly including approaches to address motor vehicle safety, workplace violence and homeland security, will be announced at the American Industrial Hygiene conference & expo, according to the agency. The conference, at which Henshaw will offer a keynote address, will be held next week in Dallas. Log on to OH.com for full coverage starting Monday.

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