A dirty job

Oil spill cleanup efforts on the Gulf Coast prompt questions of worker safety

By Kyle W. Morrison, associate editor

As the United States’ largest ecological disaster began lapping at the shores of Gulf Coast states, officials not only were scrambling to clean up the mess, but also were worrying about how to best protect the workers involved in the process.

The April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 workers and has let loose thousands of barrels of oil from the underwater well off the coast of Louisiana. In the more than two decades since the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Alaska in 1989, officials contend improvements have been made to protect and monitor the health of workers involved in oil cleanup processes. Some critics, however, claim not enough worker safety precautions are being taken.

Employer efforts

“There are already numerous reports of people falling ill after exposure to the oil, the dispersants, or some combination of the two,” Reps. James Oberstar (D-MN) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) wrote in a June 3 letter to Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis, imploring her to do more to ensure response and recovery workers are being provided proper personal protective equipment, including respirators.

The congressmen cited a May 25 memo sent from OSHA administrator David Michaels to Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the spill response’s incident commander, regarding concerns about BP’s actions to ensure safety and health training, PPE, and site monitoring.

During a June 23 hearing before the House Education and Labor Committee, Michaels said Allen quickly addressed his issues with BP, and since then the response to safety issues has been “very good.”

According to Michaels, OSHA has made more than 1,110 inspections – both unannounced and coordinated with BP. As of June 23, no citations had been issued for any potential violations in the cleanup process. OSHA is taking more of a compliance approach rather than an enforcement one. Michaels told the House committee the current policy is working, but said OSHA would turn to citations if necessary.


While some media outlets have focused on a lack of respirators for cleanup workers, experts have told Congress such PPE is not necessary for every cleanup task.

“Respiratory protection has to be delineated based on the exposure scenario,” NIOSH Director John Howard said during a June 15 hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Scenarios requiring respirators include oil burn operations and booming and skimming work, he said, noting that respirators may not be necessary for activities such as shoreline cleanup. OSHA is monitoring BP’s measurements of air quality and conducting its own measurements, Michaels said.

OSHA and NIOSH are developing respirator recommendations for all exposure scenarios, and have already released a matrix on what PPE should be worn in various job scenarios.

The most serious issue facing cleanup workers so far has been heat stress, Howard said. According to Michaels, more than 100 reports of heat illness have occurred at cleanup sites to date. Depending on the working conditions and the type of protective clothing worn, workers may work as much as 40 minutes every hour or as little as 15 minutes before breaking for the remainder of the hour.

Although OSHA has no heat standard, Michaels said the agency has had success with insisting workers take the appropriate time off, which is determined by a matrix. Also, medics are present at every staging area to measure pulses, discuss symptoms and ensure workers are protected.


Many Congress members remain wary of reassurances about worker safety and health. Rep. Jarred Polis (D-CO) brought up statements made by BP that said some cases of ill workers were food poisoning, and warned history could be repeating itself. During the Exxon Valdez cleanup, Polis said, company executives suggested workers who became ill just had a bad flu.

“That so-called flu for many Exxon Valdez cleanup workers lasted over 20 years,” Polis said. “That’s a long flu.” Michaels acknowledged that determining what illnesses are associated with work exposures during a cleanup is difficult, but stressed that OSHA is taking every condition reported by a worker seriously and each is being investigated by NIOSH.

Something officials learned from the Exxon Valdez disaster and the cleanup efforts following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is the need to better monitor the health of cleanup workers. In testimony before the Education and Labor Committee, Howard described administering surveys to cleanup workers to compile a roster to receive an accurate record of who is participating in cleanup efforts.

“One of the lessons of 9/11 is that we did not have such a roster. It made any immediate or long-term follow-up of human health extremely difficult,” said Howard, who also serves as World Trade Center programs coordinator for the Department of Health and Human Services.

As of June 29, nearly 20,000 workers have been added to the roster to track data on worker symptoms, health complaints, and injuries and illnesses, which will help officials make recommendations for interventions, Howard said.

This could be very useful in the future. According to Howard, the long-term chronic health effects that may occur due to exposure still are not well-known. “We don’t have a world’s literature here to tell us what happens when there’s this much oil around populated sites,” he said.

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