By Elizabeth Grossman
It’s now a month since the Deepwater Horizon well exploded, and the oil continues to flow. By official count, the response now involves 27,400 civilian and military personnel, 11,000 volunteers, more than 1040 boats, dozens of aircraft, and multiple offshore drilling units.
As more and more people become involved, health and safety precautions for responders are becoming increasingly important. “How many lessons have we not learned from the Exxon Valdez experience and how many mistakes are being repeated in a worse way?” asks Mark Catlin, who has set up a Facebook group to discuss these concerns.
Based on what we know about the substances being used and released, risks to workers’ health exist and must be controlled. Yet thus far the Occupational Safety and Health Administration seems to be playing only a limited role in this effort. We have several questions about the training and protection cleanup workers are receiving – and who’s ensuring that they’re adequate.
Health concerns arise for those coming into contact with oil and chemical dispersants directly or through water, air, boats, booms, and other equipment. Crude oil contains a mix of toxic volatile compounds, some carcinogenic. Oil also presents skin contact and respiratory hazards. Some 655,000 gallons of dispersants with potential adverse health impacts have now been used – most sprayed aerially. There are ongoing controlled burns of oil. On May 19th controlled burns lasted for more than 9 hours. There’s also flaring of gas coming the surface via a tube that’s been inserted into the well.
This all prompts air contamination concerns, particularly for those working near the rig site, a hive of response activity. (“Although it can be effective in some situations, in-situ burning is rarely used on marine spills because of concerns over atmospheric emissions and uncertainty about its impacts on human and environmental health,” says a 2005 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report.) OSHA’s oilspill factsheet, however, does not mention respiratory hazards.
Meeting Training and Protection Needs
OSHA has posted the health and safety training requirements for various response activities. Work on contaminated shorelines and boats requires a 4-hour course. “Contract Supervision of those who will have direct contact with petroleum for shoreline and vessel operations” and “Direction and management of workers performing spill related cleanup activities,” requires 40-hour HAZWOPER certification. BP states that each of the currently engaged 950 Vessels of Opportunity must have a HAZWOPER certified crewmember. But, according to OSHA, “BP will not be supporting training in this area” – and HAZWOPER training is “Not available through BP.” If BP hasn’t provided the training, who has?
We would also like to know more about workers’ exposures and steps taken to protect them, specifically:
- What exactly are workers being exposed to?
- Is health exposure monitoring being done?
- Is all personal protective equipment – including gloves and respiratory protection – compatible with materials and exposures?
- Is adequate medical surveillance being conducted for health problems that workers may experience during or after the cleanup?
These questions apply to work on shore and on the water; to workers involved in skimming, laying and cleaning boom, cleaning and decontaminating boats and equipment; to those handling debris, and all those in contact with air affected by spill-related oil and gas burning. They apply to the oil coming from the Deepwater Horizon well – analysis of which is not yet publicly available – and to chemical dispersants that contain proprietary ingredients in addition to those with known human health hazards. (The dispersant now planned for use in beach cleaning, COREXIT 9580, is essentially 100% kerosene.)
Oil is turning up in various forms: tar balls, oily sheen, emulsified oil, and what’s described as “weathered oil.” Age and form alters toxicity, but questions about precise toxicity of each have yet to be answered. Tar balls and weathered oil have been described as both hazardous and of limited toxicity, raising additional questions about safety precautions.
OSHA’s Limited Role
OSHA has announced that it is distributing thousands of its fact sheet/safety guide for oil spill responders and that the agency is monitoring training and clean-up activity. But as Liz noted yesterday, BP is in charge of the overall operation.
If OSHA is letting BP take charge, does that mean that OSHA will refrain from issuing citations if violations of workplace health and safety laws occur? How much of a role will OSHA play in ensuring that all responders are adequately trained? According to an OSHA press officer I spoke to, OSHA is working, not in “enforcement mode,” but in “compliance assistance mode.” We want to know what this means in practical terms.
The oil sheen has now entered the Loop Current that sweeps around Florida from the Gulf to the Atlantic where it meets the Gulf Stream near Cuba. Yesterday, heavy oil was sighted in the Louisiana marshlands at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The further the oil spreads, the more urgently we need to ensure responder health is not jeopardized.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.