Officials from professional groups such as the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) lauded Henshaw, OSHA's top administrator, for engendering an unprecedented level of cooperation between the agency and the business community.
Meanwhile, groups such as the AFL-CIO assailed Henshaw for dropping the ball when it came to issuing new regulatory standards.
"The emphasis he placed on establishing alliances will be what he was remembered for, but certainly there wasn't much in the way of reaching out to unions or reaching out to the broader safety and health community to move forward on safety and health issues," said Peg Seminario, director of the AFL-CIO's Department of Occupational Safety and Health.
As a consequence, she said, OSHA "has made no progress on advancing much-needed protections for workers."
Labor's major beefs with Henshaw, according to Seminario, begin with OSHA's failure to promulgate any major standards. But she also said she was particularly disappointed that Henshaw, a former president of the AIHA, didn't take a lead role in updating OSHA's antiquated PELs, despite broad consensus among stakeholders including the AIHA.
In stark contrast to Seminario's views are those of the AIHA's Aaron Trippler, who praised Henshaw for encouraging more agency employees to seek professional certification and for bringing an unprecedented "comfort level" to business and industry's relationship with OSHA.
While OSHA continued its enforcement efforts during Henshaw's tenure, the agency increased its emphasis on outreach, education and compliance assistance. The agency now boasts of 1,100 sites in its Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), more than 200 Strategic Partnerships Program sites and nearly 200 alliances. More than 350 of these cooperative programs involve unions, which OSHA says is an all-time high.
And Trippler argues that OSHA's focus on outreach and voluntary participation isn't as some critics have said just "PR."
"The key with John is that he never lost touch with the fact that the No. 1 goal is to protect workers," Trippler said. "He never seemed to let any of the politics get too involved. He always kept a good head on his shoulders. He always had the mindset that we must reduce injuries, illnesses and fatalities. That was refreshing."
ASSE President Gene Barfield praised Henshaw for trying to change the paradigm that health and safety programs are more than just the "safety slogan of the week" and more than just a cost of doing business. Rather, Henshaw inculcated in companies a belief that health and safety programs are worthwhile investments that pay dividends through increased productivity and decreased health care/workers' compensation costs, he said.
Barfield also said the "great strides" Henshaw made toward voluntary partnerships have helped transform OSHA's reputation from an agency that wrote standards and ruled with an iron fist to an agency that is seen as a good steward of safety a "brother or sister" in safety, if you will.
"It wasn't, 'Here's a standard and it applies to you all,'" Barfield said. "Instead it was, 'Here are these resources how can we help you?' It was a very cooperative spirit. I've been in the safety industry for 30 years and I haven't ever seen that, especially at the administrative level."
Barfield insisted that OSHA under Henshaw wasn't soft when it came to cracking down on health and safety offenders. But Barfield said the dynamic between the agency and the business community is much more productive now that OSHA has taken on the role of a friend rather than a bully.
"We no longer have the classic scenario where it's, 'Oh, four-letter-word, OSHA is coming.' You have a problem, you call OSHA and they offer suggestions for compliance rather than finger-pointing."
Still, the AFL-CIO's Seminario said she takes issue with the fact that voluntary partnerships seem to have supplanted one of OSHA's basic functions: issuing new safety standards.
"When you're only doing half your job, it's a big deficiency," Seminario said.
Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety (NYCOSH), has a laundry list of health and safety initiatives that he said OSHA under Henshaw dropped the ball on: ergonomics, reactive chemicals, worker health at Ground Zero and immigrant workers. (While OSHA says fatalities among Hispanic workers have dropped nearly 12 percent since 2001, Shufro contends its focus on immigrant worker safety "appeared to be PR.")
He said OSHA's failure to incorporate reactive chemicals into a standard despite the urging of the Chemical Safety Board "speaks to the failure of the agency to deal with pressing problems that working people face."
"Not only did they not offer any new standards but they did not move forward on any standards that were already in the pipeline that should've been promulgated," he said. "We actually went backward instead of forward with this administration."
By "this administration," Shufro also means the Bush administration, and all of the stakeholders interviewed seemed to believe that Henshaw for better or worse was at the mercy of the directives and ideologies of the Bush administration.
"[The Bush] administration has been much more top-down … than most others," Seminario said.
With that in mind, don't expect much to change with the next OSHA administrator, Shufro said in other words, expect few, if any, new standards.
"I'm not privy to how long [Henshaw's] leash was, but this administration clearly has come down on the side of pro-business, regulatory forces and has placed a greater priority on economic growth at the cost of workers' health," Shufro said.
The AIHA's Trippler, on the other hand, said the number of standards an administration promulgates isn't necessarily proportional to the level of workplace safety.
"Go back 8 years. How many major safety and health standards were implemented by the Clinton administration?"
Considering the political parameters, Trippler said Henshaw deserves praise for coming up with creative ways such as increasing participation in the VPP to make workplaces safer.
The ASSE's Barfield agreed.
"I now look at John Henshaw first as a friend and then as the highest-ranking official for OSHA, but I respect him for his dedication to the job of making workplaces safer," said Barfield, who added that he grew close to Henshaw over the past 4 years. "I don't think he was in that job just to be a figurehead. I think he wanted to impact change and I think he did a good job doing it."