Tuesday, August 24, 2004

A Carolina COSH Member in John Henshaw's Court

I'm still on vacation (actually, a break between two vacations -- taking my daughter to college tomorrow -- sniff), but with a little help from my friends, Confined Space goes on.

Tom O'Connor, Coordinator of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (the umbrella organization of COSH groups), attended a meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) the other day and filed the report below.

NACOSH, as originally devised, was a true advisory committee. While I was at OSHA, NACOSH members set their own agenda, requesting reports from OSHA and other experts on various topics, such as alternative methods of rulemaking or improving OSHA's enforcement policies, in addition to listening to (and discussing) reports on the progress on OSHA's projects. They were generally fairly lively meetings that held the feet of the Assistant Secretary, NIOSH Director and OSHA Directorate heads to the fire.

According to Tom, things have changed over the past couple of years:

I attended a meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) the other day and, while I learned some things about what OSHA and NIOSH have been doing lately, I left somewhat puzzled as to the role of this committee. In a six and a half hour meeting, there was a total of 30 minutes devoted to “committee discussion” and a few scattered minutes for questions from committee members. The rest of the time was devoted to presentations by OSHA Director John Henshaw and his staff and Dr. John Howard, Director of NIOSH.

Now the members of this committee seem to be a dedicated, nice bunch of folks—too nice maybe. If I had been sitting on the committee rather than just being an observer, I would have liked to ask a few questions about some of the statements made by Mr. Henshaw during the meeting, for example:

1) Ergonomics: Henshaw pointed to the fact that the agency conducted 1,703 inspections addressing ergonomic hazards over the past year, resulting in 300 “hazard alerts” and fourteen citations under the General Duty clause. Whoa, was I wrong! I guess that ergonomics standard wasn’t really necessary after all! All those inspections, presumably in high ergo-hazard industries, and less than one-tenth of one percent is found to have a problem! If I had been on the committee, I would have wanted to hear more about how they were so successful in their ergonomic hazard prevention efforts that 99.9% of inspected worksites are now free of serious ergo hazards.

2) The public’s right to know: Henshaw matter of factly stated that the agency has been fighting a Freedom of Information Act request by the New York Times seeking more detailed inspections data. Now readers of Confined Space will remember that OSHA hasn’t always appeared real enthusiastic about giving full access to the inspections data on their website, but what’s up with fighting the FOIA request? Didn’t the committee at least deserve an explanation as to why the public doesn’t have a right to this information? A court recently ruled against them, Henshaw explained, and now they are “considering our next steps.” He didn’t ask the “advisory” committee for their advice on how to proceed.

3) The Hispanic “Summit”: As previously reported here, OSHA recently held a conference on Hispanic worker health and safety without bothering to involve most of the public health experts, grassroots Latino organizations, or labor unions who have real experience in these issues in the planning process. The conference was reported at the meeting to be a stunning success. Undoubtedly, some useful information exchange took place and folks in attendance got to see Secretary Chao hand out a real big check to a faith-based Latino organization in Florida, in case anyone missed the real point of the whole exercise. (Maybe the Bush folks saw this as particularly culturally appropriate since handing out pre-election goodies is a tried and true campaign tactic in Latin America.) If I were on the committee, I would have liked to ask why they decided to have the meeting in Florida in the middle of the summer (The cheap airfares? All the great restaurants in Orlando?) and why the only Hispanic organizations involved were the Chamber of Commerce and a Republican political organization.

4) The "benefits" of deregulation: In response to the recent Washington Post story which essentially accused the current administration of bringing worker safety and health regulations to a grinding halt, Henshaw stated that the story contained “a number of inaccuracies.” He declined to specify what these were. He said that he was “proud” of the agency’s action in killing the TB rule and in their general approach to regulation. I would have liked to ask him for a little clarification on how taking away health workers’ protections from TB was a step forward.

But, hey, I’m not on the committee.

By the way, kudos to NIOSH Director Howard for staying through the full day of the meeting, offering some insights into NIOSH research priorities, and making a point of talking to folks attending the meeting.