Occupational Safety and Health Administration head John Henshaw came to Washington from the chemical industry, where he ran safety and health programs at Astaris LLC. Since being appointed by President George W. Bush in fall 2001, he's launched efforts both to toughen enforcement against problem companies and build partnerships with industry. One of his first alliances, in September, was with the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., focusing on ergonomic and amputation injuries.
Henshaw, whose official title is assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, sat down April 16 in his Washington office with Plastics News editor Robert Grace and Washington reporter Steve Toloken. This is an edited version of his remarks.
Q: You've obviously put a lot of focus on these alliances. Can you update us on the status of the agreement with SPI?
A: We've got a number of things in the alliance and I'm hoping we'll have a number of other ideas coming out of it. It initially is just an agreement that we are going to begin to work together on outreach and education and explore ways to get the word out and to be more effective in communicating and creating a change in work places that need a change. In Chicago [at NPE], we will have an OSHA presence there. We will have a booth, materials, CDs for example, that talk about ergonomic issues in the plastics industry.
Q: In some of the other alliances, you have come under criticism from unions for not involving them in the process.
A: Certainly we would welcome an alliance with unions. ... But [the agreement is] not with the union per se, it's with SPI. There are no concessions made in alliances. We're not saying we're not going to do inspections. We're just finding common threads that we can identify and agree they will add value to members. It's not appropriate when we sign one with SPI to have a union be a co-signatory.
Q: In the case of the SPI agreement, do you have specific targets for the plastics industry?
A: We don't have specific targets. The reason for that is, the first thing we have to do in any alliance is develop an implementation plan.
Q: Like a lot of industries, in 2001, the injury and illness rate for plastics processing went down quite a bit. But the industry also has a higher injury and illness rate than manufacturing as a whole. Just in general terms, how would you describe the plastics industry's safety performance?
[Editor's note: Plastics processors had an injury and illness rate of 4.6 lost workday cases per 100 workers in 2001, compared with 5.4 in 2000. U.S. manufacturing as a whole had a rate of 4.1 in 2001.]
A: Clearly from 2000-01, that's a significant drop in the sector itself. That's pretty good. Before you can say things are really looking good, you need to look at several data sets. Certainly if the trend continues, that sounds very promising.
Q: OSHA also has targeted plastics as part of the amputation directive. Is the plastics industry an industry you think requires higher-than-normal attention because of some of these amputation problems and higher-than-average injury and illness rates?
A: There is a higher risk around amputations in the plastics processing industry. Even if overall rates go down, you still may have a higher risk in amputations than other industries. So what we try to do, in our new management plan, is have amputations as a focus, not only in plastics but in other industries, like metal processing.
Q: Obviously safety performance varies widely from company to company. There are plastics processors like Precise Technology Inc., based in North Versailles, Pa., with an injury and illness rate for the last three years below 2.0, less than half the industry average. If companies that really focus on it can do so much better than the average, does that indicate that a lot of companies aren't as serious as they should be about safety?
A: A lot of companies don't focus on it. They say it's just the nature of the business, that's just the way it is. Well, when you're accepting that, you're going to hurt people.
Q: Let's talk about ergonomics. Some unions have criticized the agency for coming out with very few industry guidelines so far. But you also hear concerns from business groups that when these ergonomic guidelines come out they will be de facto enforcement standards under the general duty clause. Should ergonomics standards be something used under the general duty clause?
A: No. No guideline, whether it is OSHA's guideline or a general industry guideline, will be enforced. We made that statement quite clear in our training of inspectors and to all the folks in OSHA and outside of OSHA. The only enforcement posture that is accepted for ergonomics is using the general duty clause. That means it has to meet four tests of 5(a)(1) [the general duty clause]. ... The probability is that if a company is using any sort of guideline, process, procedure, exercising good faith in trying to identify and eliminate ergonomic hazards, they are not likely to be a candidate for 5(a)(1).
Q: OSHA recently announced some changes that will let you crack down more aggressively on severe safety violators, conduct more follow-up inspections, issue more contempt of court citations. Can you talk about why that is being done?
A: What we want to do is identify those organizations that have shown they have not complied with the law. The enhanced enforcement is a targeting effort. The other part is in our settlements. When we reach a settlement with an organization, we want that settlement to stick and make it a violation of a court as opposed to just an OSHA law. It's a court order as opposed to another violation of an OSHA standard.
Q: DuPont Safety Resources estimates the average plastics firm pays an average of $3,200 per worker each year in injury and illness costs, including indirect costs like lost productivity. Can companies significantly improve their bottom line by making significant strides on safety?
A: I firmly believe good safety and health programs can impact positively the bottom line. Workers' comp costs, I think Liberty Mutual estimated, annually are somewhere in the neighborhood of $155 billion to $232 billion a year. ... A lot of our partnerships and alliances will focus around that, particularly more effectively around that business case.
It's one thing when the safety and health community is talking business, but usually the business leaders aren't listening to safety and health. But if we can get the business people talking safety and health business, and seeing the value ... maybe they have more credibility.
Q: Were there times when you were in the chemical industry that you said, `I wish OSHA took this approach?'
A: One of the things I wanted to do is recognize there is this talent base out there. The alliances are getting at that, this talent base of people trying to do the same thing. What the agency has to do is make sure what they do as a government agency doesn't stifle that creativity. There is nothing [I hated more than having] to do something that was mandated by the government that didn't add value in my business.