Henshaw on Creating the Regulatory Agenda: 'We Can't Do It All'

In an exclusive interview with Occupational Hazards, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw talks about the latest regulatory agenda as a reflection of a more efficient, productive agency that is trying to utilize its resources in the most effective way possible.

Henshaw calls the regulatory agenda "a working document," subject to change as some occupational safety and health issues move to the foreground, such as ionizing radiation from airport scanners, while others like tuberculosis, which has declined 43 percent in recent years - move down in priority.

Tuberculosis, in fact, has been withdrawn from the regulatory agenda years after first being included on it. "There has been a major decline in reported tuberculosis cases since 1993, a 43 percent decline," reports Henshaw. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines that are out there are working as far as reducing tuberculosis to the highest risk group healthcare workers."

He said OSHA is working with several federal bureaus as well as the CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to help drive home the importance of implementing the CDC guidelines. The proposed OSHA standard was withdrawn because it was no longer a priority. The CDC guidelines are doing the job and OSHA has plenty of other places where it can and should allocate resources, says Henshaw, such as occupational exposure to crystalline silica, beryllium and hexavalent chromium; hearing conservation in construction; assigned protection factors (APF) for respirators and ionizing radiation.

The agency finished some agenda items the update and revision of the exit routes standard, for example and added others, such as ionizing radiation.

Following 9/11, workplace safety issues few considered before, such as those associated with terrorist attacks and protecting employees and the public from terrorist attacks, suddenly became important.

Airport workers who run baggage through x-ray machines, postal workers who irradiate mail to kill biological warfare agents, some commercial food workers, healthcare workers and others are finding themselves exposed to more radiation than ever before. The last time OSHA took a look at ionizing radiation was 1974, says Henshaw, and since then, the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have enacted extensive radiation standards reflecting new technological and safety advances. Adding ionizing radiation to the regulatory agenda seemed like an appropriate use of agency resources, he notes.

Then there are the issues that demand attention: occupational exposure to hexavalent chromium and APFs for respirators.

The U.S. Court of Appeals ordered OSHA to complete a final rule to protect workers from occupational exposure to hexavalent chromium by Jan. 18, 2006. The agency has until Oct. 4, 2004 to come up with a proposed rule. Considering how long it usually takes OSHA to research and write proposed standards, complete the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA) process as well as other administrative reviews, and conduct a comment period on proposed standards, the timetable set by the court is "really fast," says Henshaw. "That's why we were arguing to have a more reasonable time frame." He says he doesn't want to suggest "directly" that the fast time frame could potentially cause a slowdown for other items on the regulatory agenda, but admits, "It forced us to look at our resources and make some decisions" in order to meet the court-ordered deadlines.

The other priority item, APFs for respirators, is particularly crucial, because the 10-year-old ANSI standard, used by many employers, expired recently. Assigned protection factors are listed on the agenda with a NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking) date of May 2003. "Stay tuned," says Henshaw, "we still have a few days left in May. There's a big need for APFs. We've got to get it done."

And getting it done is the name of the game with this regulatory agenda, Henshaw insists.

"We can't do it all," he says of the agency he runs. "We can only put so much on the agenda" and expect to get it done, which is reflected in an agenda that is streamlined over those from previous years and OSHA administrators.

Henshaw promises action on the regulatory items within a week or two of the dates published on the agenda, even going so far as to say some agenda items might get done "a week or two early."

"As we get better and better at planning and program management, we'll become more precise at targeting completion dates," he says. However, he points out, "other agencies outside of OSHA might not adhere to our timetables. That's not an excuse at all, but a reflection of reality. We try to build that time [for other agencies to review proposed standards] into the agenda."

Ultimately, says Henshaw, he hopes the regulatory agenda, and OSHA's action on those agenda items, "will fulfill the expectations of the public and workers." That can only be done, he notes, with feedback and comments from employers, employees and other stakeholders.

So, the next time OSHA requests comments on a proposed standard or guideline, don't be shy, Henshaw counsels. The process only works if everyone with a stake in the issue participates.

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