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Rotary Happenings: Rotarian speaker talks about work with OSHA, 9/11

By Staff | Jun 25, 2019

PHOTO PROVIDED Sanibel-Captiva Rotarian John Henshaw was the guest speaker at the club's recent meeting.

Stepping up to the podium last week was, once again, one of our own Sanibel-Captiva Rotarians, John Henshaw. He served as the assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from June 2001 to December 2004 under President George Bush and U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. OSHA was his topic for the morning. OSHA safeguards worker safety and health in the United States by working with employers and employees to create better working environments. Sounds straight forward doesn’t it? But OSHA’s work can upset business entities. It is not the most beloved agency in the government.

Did you know? Congress created OSHA under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which was signed by President Richard M. Nixon on Dec. 29, 1970. Another surprising note, President Richard Nixon also proposed the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency on July 9, 1970, and it began operation on Dec. 2, 1970, after Nixon signed an executive order.

Henshaw noted some Bureau of Labor statistics from 2017- 5,147 workers died from work-related injury in the United State. About 2.8 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported by private industry, occurring at a rate of 2,8 cases per 100 full-time workers. Tens of billion of dollars lost in the economy from workplace accidents.

OSHA responds and investigates many workplace accidents and reviews whether all OSHA federal regulations are and have been adhered to and investigates whether there should be further regulations imposed on businesses for the protection of their employees. OSHA is responsible for the safety and health conditions in most private industries and OSHA-approved state plans.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor: “The Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women. Accordingly, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created to perform the following primary functions: assure the safety and health of workers at the workplace, wherever that may be; consult with and advise employers, employees, and representative organizations of the effective means of preventing occupational injuries and illnesses; and conduct workplace inspections and investigations to determine whether employers are complying with standards. OSHA has a key role in domestic preparedness and response activities. OSHA’s mission to assure safe and healthful working conditions for our working men and women is a vital component in our nation’s emergency response and recovery system outlining the general parameters under which OSHA can assist, and the resources OSHA can provide during the various response phases associated with a catastrophic incident.”

Now think back Henshaw was confirmed as assistant secretary of labor on June 2001. The attack on the World Trade Center in New York, New York, happened on Sept. 11, 2001. After being on the job for only a few months, he was called to immediate action as part of the federal government response team for 9/11. There needed to be a systematic and unified all hazards approach to the management of responder health and safety. OSHA has no jurisdiction over municipal employees like the fire department and police. New York government officials particularly the fire department made it clear, it was their mandate to oversee the 9/11 emergency and response handling. Respiratory equipment was an issue for those working at the 9/11 site. Henshaw wanted to issue new and better equipment and train workers and volunteers how to use the new equipment. The safety of responders was an issue. Eventually he was able to distribute the new safer respiratory equipment. Henshaw even had trouble with getting President Bush to put on a hard hat during his visit to the 9/11 site. People want to handle emergencies first and think of themselves after. Characterizing worker exposures and assessing risks, coordinating and providing necessary training and collecting risk data, Henshaw’s job was to follow standards that would help protect workers around the hazardous materials spewed in the debris field after the attack of 9/11 and in the distribution areas where hazardous materials was dumped.

As we all know 9/11 first responders have had and still are having major health problems from exposure to the burning smoke and chemical debris spewed in the air on 9/11. Safety equipment is of utmost importance during emergencies of this kind.

After hearing Henshaw’s talk, I think OSHA is an undervalued government agency. Cost to business to implement OSHA safety and health rulings are expensive but the value of life is even more important. The daily work of OSHA does not only deals with emergency situations but are mindful of the prevention of everyday hazards at the workplace.

For information about the Sanibel-Captiva Rotary Club, visit sanibelrotary.org or www.facebook.com/sancaprotary. The club meets every Friday at 7 a.m. at the Dunes Golf and Tennis Club, at 949 Sand Castle Road, Sanibel; visitors are welcome to attend.