OSHA administrator John Henshaw recently spoke to John Dyslin of Safety and Health Magazine. In addition to addressing concerns such as homeland security, his experiences as OSHA administrator, and politics, Henshaw answered this question regarding ergonomics.
S+H: When your nomination was announced by the Bush administration and passed in the Senate, it was universally praised. But since then you’ve taken some hits from the Democratic side and from labor regarding ergonomics and budgeting. What are your relations with union leadership?
Henshaw: Let me break this relationship in two pieces: a relationship with a political bent and a relationship with a professional bent.
Regarding the professional bent, am I getting criticism for trying to reduce injuries and illnesses or not being effective? I think if we take the politics out of this, I think a lot of the criticism would go away. I don’t think anyone can argue sincerity, hard work and ethics, and trying to do what we have to do to reduce injuries and illnesses. People can argue the ‘how’. And some of the how is driven by political perceptions or political motivations. The expectations are going to be politically driven, and that is where some of the criticism comes.
On Ergonomics, it’s ‘how should it be done?’ Clearly, for organized labor they want the old rule back and we can’t do that. Here is the lay of the land and here is what we have to work with: Congress decided in March 2001 to do away with the old ergonomics rule. Now where do we go from there? How can we reduce injuries and illnesses now? How can we be as effective as we possibly can in our new four-pronged ergonomics approach? It is the most effective way to reduce injuries and illnesses now. Organized labor thinks the how should be different. We’re not going to get there. Therefore, I’m taking what I have and working with it the best way I possibly can.
So in the politics I am taking criticism and I can understand that. But from a professional safety and health standpoint I am closer to where people are. My argument is, given the issues around ergonomics, the science and questions and uncertainties, my job is to take what I’ve got and work with it. I use the analogy of the sailor: I can’t change the direction of the wind; all I can do is adjust the sails. The wind is the science issues, cost issues, uncertainty issues all wrapped together with years to sort through it. Given that we don’t have years and want to stop the pain and suffering now as opposed to waiting another 10 years before we have another rule, I want to adjust my sails, take what we’ve got and be effective in reducing injuries and illnesses.
The above interview was excerpted from “Henshaw’s Brave New World” Safety and Health. August 2002. Vol. 166, No.2. National Safety Council.