Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Henshaw Tries To Defend Record. Nice Try.

Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, John Henshaw is pissed off -- again. He's written a letter to Newsday, objecting to the piece they wrote last week, calling the article "misleading and a distortion of the accomplishments of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration."

The first point that Henshaw makes is that

The simple fact is that the workplace illness, injury and fatality rates are at their lowest levels ever, while the size of the American work force has been steadily increasing. That is the ultimate measure of our success; more workers go home safe, healthy and whole to their families at the end of every workday than did when this administration began its work.
Maybe yes, maybe no. It's well known that injury and illness numbers are underestimated. Even OSHA knows there's a problem, as shown by a recent $140,000 citation against General Motors Powertrain Corp for failure to record injuries:

OSHA's inspection identified 98 instances where the company did not record on the OSHA 300 Log work-related noise-induced hearing losses and other injuries and illnesses suffered by employees at the plant. Accurate recordkeeping is essential for protecting workers since it provides the opportunity for timely identification and correction of conditions that can harm workers. The Massena plant's failure to record work-related injuries led to the issuance of two willful citations, carrying $140,000 in fines.
One thing that can't be hidden very easily is workplace fatalities -- and they were up last year from 5,534 in 2002 to 5,559 in 2003. And let's not forget, as our imaginary John Kerry pointed out in last week's imaginary debate, "That means that more people died on the job in this country last year than were killed on 9/11, in Afghanistan and in Iraq put together. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. 50,000 to 60,000 died from occupational diseases."

Henshaw then goes on to object to Newsday's report of OSHA's failure to adopt the September 2002 US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board recommendation that OSHA revise its Process Safety Standard Management (PSM) standard to include reactive chemicals.

The article included a very one-sided discussion about the agency's regulatory actions on the issue of reactive chemicals. Unwanted chemical reactions and resulting incidents pose a serious problem, and OSHA is fully committed to a comprehensive approach for addressing these hazards.
Some of you may find the phrase "comprehensive approach" familiar. It's the same term that OSHA used to describe it's voluntary approach to ergonomics after the standard was repealed in 2001. And as with ergonomics, OSHA is substituting the well-documented need for a mandatory requirements with training materials and an alliance with chemical industry associations. Nothing wrong with training materials and compliance assistance. But the evidence compiled by the CSB shows that what is needed is a change in the standard.

Henshaw justifies his failure to adopt CSB recommendations by arguing:

In stark contrast to the slanted and unfair reporting in your article, the fact remains that the average annual number of workplace fatalities in the chemical manufacturing industry is nearly 10 percent lower over the first three years of the Bush administration than the annual average during the Clinton administration.
That may be true, but we're counting apples and oranges. Injuries and fatalities in the chemical industry are not good indicators of the hazard that this industry poses. Injuries in chemical plants are generally high frequency, low severity events. Runaway reactions, on the other hand, are generally low frequency, high consequence incidents. Deadly reactive incidents may not happen very often, but when they do, they can be catastrophic for workers and the surrounding community, as we saw in Bhopal, India twenty years ago.

In addition, there is a strong trend in chemical companies to contract out the most dangerous work. If these contractors get hurt or killed, it doesn't show up on the chemical company's logs. In fact, the Georgia Pacific fatalities described by Newsday were contract employees that would not have showed up on GP's logs.

Then Henshaw starts to lose it:
Finally, this administration has been engaged in a strong and realistic regulatory agenda. We are actively working on many workplace health and safety issues, such as electrical safety, beryllium, hexavalent chromium, confined spaces in construction, cranes and derricks, fire protection in shipyards and many others.
As we've noted many times, this administration has withdrawn far more standards than it has issued. The only major standard that Bush's OSHA has made any progress on is hexavalent chromium -- and the agency was under court order. Four years after this administration arrived, they still haven't issued the almost completed standard that would have required employers to pay for workers' personal protective equipment.

"Strong and realistic?"

I don't know why I even waste my time on this garbage.