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Published: August, 2010; Vol 7, Num 3

 

Questions and Answers:

Worker Safety and Health in the Gulf

By Scott Schneider

The BP oil spill may be plugged – or not – but millions of gallons of oil have spewed since April. The task of cleaning it up will continue for many months. One of the nagging questions raised by some environmentalists is, “Are clean-up workers being sufficiently protected from potential exposures?” The worry is that workers may suffer long term health effects from exposure to the oil and dispersants. Some critics believe that significant health problems – such as developed after the Exxon Valdez and World Trade Center clean-up efforts in which Laborers played major roles – could crop up again. 

Questions and Answers

WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT DOING TO MAKE SURE CLEAN-UP WORKERS DO NOT GET SICK FROM THE WORK?

OSHA, NIOSH, EPA, NIEHS and the Coast Guard have had personnel in the Gulf full time for many weeks. They are checking the air for toxic chemicals, observing conditions and reviewing the cases of everyone who gets sick to look for trends. Their only job is to make sure that workers have a safe work environment.

WHAT ARE THEY FINDING?

Hundreds of air samples have been taken both on the ships and on shore. None of the samples on shore showed hazardous levels. In fact, the vast majority of samples showed nothing at all (e.g., less than the level that could be detected by the sampling method). BP is also taking samples, but OSHA is not relying on its data to make recommendations. In addition, hundreds of observations of independent professionals and scientists confirm this data. As a result, OSHA and NIOSH do not believe that a respiratory hazard from breathing the air on shore exists. They do not recommend respirators except in specific circumstances. On the ships, however, higher levels have been found for those working close to the source. These workers are using respirators to protect themselves, particularly for operations like burning oil. While hazardous levels have not been found, workers are sometimes exposed to low levels of chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide, which can be irritating and might cause some temporary symptoms.

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST HAZARD WORKERS FACE?

The biggest hazard faced by workers in the Gulf is the heat and humidity. Temperatures are 90-100 degrees with high humidity, and a body generates more heat when working hard. Already, over 650 workers have been treated for heat stress, including a few who were hospitalized. For this reason, OSHA insists that workers have rest breaks in cool shady areas and lots of water to drink. While a few commentators have suggested these workers are not working hard enough, anyone who has worked in protective clothing in very hot and humid conditions knows that it is dangerous to do it for long periods without enough rest.

OSHA also is requiring protective clothing but only for those operations where workers have a high risk of skin contact with weathered oil or oil-contaminated materials.

WHAT ABOUT ALL THE WORKERS WHO HAVE GOTTEN SICK?

From April 22 through July 12, over 1600 injuries and illnesses were recorded. The vast majority, over 1300, have been “first aid” cases, where minor treatment was given and the patient was released. About 250 required some medical treatment. Sixteen resulted in lost work days. About a third of these cases involved off-shore workers and two-thirds on-shore workers.

A few workers were actually hospitalized with illnesses. An investigation by NIOSH scientists concluded that they were not sick from exposures to oil. Rather, the illnesses were likely due to a combination of exposures to cleaning products and heat stress. Over 650 other workers became ill due to heat exposures and were treated and released.

WILL LONG-TERM EFFECTS OCCUR FROM THESE EXPOSURES?

From the exposure data and observations so far, it is unlikely that there will be any long term effects on clean-up workers. NIOSH and OSHA will continue to monitor the situation carefully as long as workers are doing the clean-up. If conditions change, NIOSH and OSHA will change their recommendations and increase the level of protection workers will receive. Anyone with knowledge of hazardous conditions or workers sickened by exposures to chemicals or heat should report it immediately to OSHA at 1-800-323-OSHA (6742). NIOSH is also creating a roster of over 34,000 clean-up workers to monitor trends and make sure their long-term health is unaffected.