by Eula Bingham & Anthony Robbins
On April 20th, when the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded, eleven workers died. Since then thousands of Gulf Coast citizens have responded to the disaster. Few are professional clean-up workers, but these responders stepped forward rapidly to protect their communities from the consequences of the man-made catastrophe. Health damage to these “workers” may persist long after the booms, berms, and dispersants are gone. They are beginning to report acute symptoms. Obviously they must be protected now, and the protection must also prevent long-term effects.
On the Gulf Coast, no one designed the uneven and slippery surfaces to be safe workplaces. Chemical components of crude oil, weathered oil, dispersants, and volatile vapors will be absorbed through workers’ skin and breathed into their lungs. Scientific studies catalog the health consequences of oil spills: damage to pulmonary, immunologic, and endocrine function, plus genetic damage. In our combined experience, most toxic effects of chemicals are easily foreseen. These dangers are likely to endure well beyond control of the oil leak, into a protracted clean-up and lengthy restoration efforts.
Three key responses are needed immediately:
Train workers: Unlike the first responders who arrive when there is an oil spill on our highways, the people of the Gulf Coast have not been taught how to protect themselves and their communities. Already, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences put out the call to its centers that train hazardous chemical spill responders to send help to the Gulf Coast. These few trainers are highly knowledgeable in the precautions needed to handle these chemicals, but far more trainers will be needed.
Observe and document exposures: This includes accurate and sufficiently representative measurements of air and contact exposure likely to be experienced by workers. We must create an accurate picture of who has been exposed and by what route-skin, lungs, ingestion-to which chemical agents. The picture will change over time, so this monitoring is a long term commitment. It is also a difficult one that will take resources and ingenuity.
Observe and record health effects: Medical observations will be important, so we can learn what medical problems are caused by exposure to this massive oil spill. This is called disease surveillance, a routine practice in industries where exposures to hazardous chemical are common. And share these medical observations, including blood tests and x-rays with the workers. Enter everyone engaged in clean-up tasks should be entered into a registry designed to allow follow-up.
President Obama has said the federal government is in charge. Government should be enlisting maximum resources from all sectors, starting with its own, to accomplish these critical tasks and protect workers, volunteers, and their communities.
Since 1970, the Federal Government has had the authority and responsibility to protect workers. Our fellow citizens battling this oil spill deserve that same protection guaranteed to all American workers under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Only the Federal Government can lead this urgent effort.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has forty years experience conducting Health Hazard Evaluations, where its scientists describe and study the consequences of workplace exposures and recommend how the workers can be protected. The vast canvass of the Gulf Coast will requires a major campaign of HHEs to describe the hazards so these workers can be protected, now and into the future.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, experienced with catastrophes of many kinds, has over the same period been charged with ensuring workers are safe by enforcing worker protection.
These two Federal agencies will surely need the help and cooperation of other federal agencies, state and local governments, from industry-including those who caused the disaster-and from many volunteers. But when it comes to worker health and safety, they are the leaders and they have the authority. That’s what it means “to be in charge.”
Dr. Bingham is the former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health (1977-81); Dr. Robbins the former Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (1978-81). Bingham was also a consultant to the Governor of Alaska on the Exxon Valdez spill (1989). This commentary also appeared in the Lake Charles American Press on June 27, 2010.