Fatalities Rose in 2003: Is Henshaw's OSHA Off Track?

In an exclusive interview with OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS' Washington editor, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw explains why he believes the agency is headed in the right direction even though workplace fatalities increased last year.

Soon after his confirmation as assistant secretary of Labor for OSHA in August 2001, John Henshaw said he wanted his leadership of the agency to be judged by its performance in bringing down workplace illnesses, injuries, and fatalities. This "triple bottom line" has been falling for decades, so he made it clear success meant increasing the rate of decline.

But in September the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the fatality numbers are going in the wrong direction: 25 more workers died on the job in 2003 than in 2002. Although the fatality rate of 4.0 per 100,000 employees held steady because of employment increases, 5,559 workers were killed at work last year, compared to 5,534 in 2002.

When OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS asked if the recent numbers meant OSHA had failed to measure up to Henshaw's own definition of success, the assistant secretary granted an interview to discuss the question in depth.

OH: In fiscal year 2002, workplace deaths dropped significantly, but you were confirmed just before the start of that year can you take credit for the decrease?

Henshaw: After the 9/11 attacks, lots of influences came to bear. We spent a lot of time talking up the issue of workplace health and safety. I think the nation can take credit for what happened. In 2002, we had the largest drop in percentage and total numbers since the data were collected. But we still lost over 5000 lives.

OH: How do you square the 2003 increase in fatalities with your statement that you want to be judged on OSHA's ability to bring down the 'triple bottom line?'

Henshaw: I'm disappointed that we lost 5,559 lives. The entire nation ought to be disappointed. We know the way to get at that is for employers to own up to their responsibilities to protect their employees. That's where the ownership should be.

If you begin to rationalize this by doing some subtracting, it looks a little better, but we still lost more than 5,000 lives. If you break the numbers down and take out the stuff that we [OSHA] don't influence or we don't have control over, the numbers are going down. And it's back-to-back with 2002.

We had an increase of 51 deaths from assaults and violent acts in 2003. If you take this out, we actually had a decrease in fatalities from 2002 to 2003 in both number and rate.

OH: The OSH Act doesn't cover violent acts?

Henshaw: It's something we haven't focused on until recently. We've got things like workshops, some guidance, an alliance or two. We've just begun to address it. In addition, the OSH Act doesn't cover the self-employed, and there was an increase in fatalities here in 2003 of 114.

Where we focused our efforts, especially in some of the isolated pockets like Hispanics, we've seen a dramatic decrease in the numbers. Going by Spanish surname, that number dropped for the first time in 2002, by 6 percent, and it sustained another drop by the same amount in 2003. And we got a 10 percent drop in Hispanic foreign-born, we spent a lot of time and energy reaching out to that population.

The falls issue is one that we spent a lot of time on and that went down, same with hazardous environments. So that tells me that where we focus our energies we can see a drop.

OH: You have emphasized changing the workplace culture with voluntary methods rather than through standards and enforcement. But it seems fatalities are declining where you do enforcement, and rising where do not. When you claim success by removing areas where you have used voluntary methods, such as violent acts and the self-employed, aren't you conceding that enforcement is effective and voluntary efforts are not?

Henshaw: Our primary focus is still the traditional workplaces. But if we get at the culture, you'll see violent acts and the self-employed beginning to improve their safety picture too. But that's in the longer run.

OH: Is 2003 the first year we could reasonably expect to see fatality drops from your leadership at OSHA?

Henshaw: One data point or two doesn't give the whole picture. You really need a trend. We're doing a balanced approach, not just doing enforcement, not just writing standards, not just doing alliances. It's going to take years to fully develop.

But I'm confident that as we see more of these things come into play we'll see the slope of that line get steeper.

OH: In science, for a hypothesis to be meaningful, it must assert something that can be disproved. What will it take to disprove your hypothesis about OSHA improvement?

John Henshaw will answer this, and other questions about the long-term evaluation of OSHA's effectiveness, in the second and concluding installment of the interview.

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