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Rotary Happenings: Henshaw shares experience of Sept. 11

By Staff | Nov 1, 2017


Some of the best assets our island communities have are the people that reside on Sanibel and Captiva. They’re a fascinating group of people with a myriad of experiences both personal and professional. One such person is Sanibel-Captiva Rotarian John Henshaw, former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under President George W. Bush and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. Appointed to his position in August 2001, just a brief period-of-time on the job before the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. John took the podium last Friday morning to give us some insight on the trials and tribulation of being part of the WTC federal response team during 9/11.

Although many of us think that most presidential appointees have in some ways related to the political machine before their appointments, John told us that his experience in that arena was pretty much nonexistent. He had spent 26 years in the work safety and health profession and hadn’t even been registered as a Republican until 2000, but he did put in his name to help with George Bush’s transition team. When his name came into play for the position at the Labor Department, John was asked several questions about his connections with the president or involvement with Bush’s presidential campaign. He had to tell them, that really there was no connection, although he had voted for George W. Secretary of Labor, Chao, was respectful of that because the job actually required somebody who knew the safety and health hazards and risks for employees and how to employ the standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 – to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.

Sept. 11, 2001: Terrorists hijack four airline jets and crash them into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Virginia and a field in rural Somerset County, Pa. John like all of us, watched the scene of terror unfold on our television sets. Two of the planes, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, were crashed into the North and South towers, respectively, of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. Within an hour and 42 minutes, both 110-story towers collapsed, with debris and the resulting fires causing partial or complete collapse of all other buildings in the World Trade Center complex, including the 47-story 7 World Trade Center tower, as well as significant damage to 10 other large surrounding structures. John watched the World Center towers attacks, he watched the first-defenders rush to the scene, he saw the buildings collapse and clouds of gas, smoke, steel, concrete, and burning debris fill the surrounding areas around the Towers and covering 10 square miles around the complex. He immediately knew that OSHA would have an important role in the safe search, rescue, and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center attack.

As the head of OSHA, John went to New York City and the WTC to evaluate the safety and health conditions that rescue workers were and would be presented with from asbestos, lead, silica, metal fume, inorganic compounds Freon, poisonous vapors and dust, a plethora of deadly chemical combinations and safety risks of structural collapse, fall protection, heavy equipment movement, hot steel, explosions, and confined spaces. Because of the immediate need for action in rescuing and recovery of occupants of the buildings enforcement of OSHA rules for safety were suspended and allowance of the New York City Fire Department and Police Force to lead the rescue and recovery efforts were allowed to stand using their own protective and respiratory equipment. Training on OSHA official respiratory systems would take time and time was not on the side of those in need of rescue.

A quote I found from John Henshaw explained that “the urgency of the task” at the WTC “did not allow time to invoke OSHA’s ordinary enforcement procedures to assure the safety of these workers.” After the fact, this decision was questioned, but this was John’s call to make and he made it. Safety first did eventually lead to a joint initiative with OSHA distributing 131,000 respirators, 2,887 for the FDNY personnel, and conduct 7,567 respirator quantitative fit tests- respirator fit testing requirements for any worker who is required to use a tight-fitting respirator. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration – also called “OSHA” – and State OSHA Agencies require employers to fit test workers who must wear these respirators on the job, they distributed 11,000 hard hats, 13,000 safety glasses, and 21,000 protective gloves. During the site cleanup and recovery phase OSHA stats report there were more than 9,000 hazards identified and corrected requiring 3.7 million work hours during cleanup. There were no fatalities during this time, but a recorded 57 serious injuries.

The Sanibel-Captiva Rotary meets Friday mornings at 7 a.m., at the Dunes Golf and Tennis Club. Guests always welcomed.