At least for one day, the man the Bush administration wants to lead OSHA appeared to transcend the political wrangling that has so often confounded the nation''s top job safety agency.
As a result, the Senate is expected to move quickly to confirm John Henshaw, the former director of environment, safety, and health for Astaris LLC, as the next assistant secretary of labor for OSHA.
During Henshaw''s confirmation hearing yesterday, the nominee won praise in equal measure from Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
"My intention is to complete this before the August recess," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the committee chair, as the hearing concluded. The Senate''s August recess is scheduled to begin today.
After Senators on the committee finished praising Henshaw for his professional experience and commitment to workplace protections, the lawmakers proceeded to ask OSHA policy questions that Henshaw generally avoided answering.
The queries at confirmation hearings are often intended more to advance the agenda of the questioner than to obtain definite answers from a nominee who is not yet on the job.
The one exception was Kennedy, who began by asking the nominee what his priorities were for OSHA.
"As I see it, my mission is to improve the credibility and effectiveness of OSHA," Henshaw replied. He then explained that this goal entailed agency efforts in four different areas:
- Strong enforcement;
- Improved outreach and education;
- Encouragement of voluntary programs;
- Lead a national dialogue on workplace safety and health.
Kennedy followed by asking Henshaw''s views on OSHA''s flat budget, the loss of 94 full time positions, and the lengthy standards process.
Henshaw gave evasive responses to these questions, but he did have an answer to the inevitable ergonomics query.
"Do you believe there are successful ergonomics programs?" Kennedy asked.
"Yes sir I do," Henshaw replied. He noted that during his work in the private sector, there was not a dedicated ergonomics program, but it was integrated into the total health and safety effort. Henshaw was non-committal on whether OSHA should issue a new standard for repetitive motion injuries, saying that if confirmed he would approach ergonomics rulemaking with "a fresh set of eyes."
Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., the only Republican to ask questions at the hearing, wanted to know if Henshaw supported a bill that would codify into law OSHA''s Voluntary Protection Program. The nominee replied that he is a strong supporter of all voluntary programs.
The junior Senator from New York, Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton, was also present at the hearing, and she questioned Henshaw about news reports that OSHA routinely fails to investigate hundreds of immigrants killed on the job -- at least 874 nationwide during a six-year period.
Henshaw answered that he had read the articles and would look into the matter if confirmed.
"I look forward to working with you," replied Clinton.
by James Nash