It’s been called the worst man-made environmental disaster at sea. Nineteen years ago this March, nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil from the Exxon Valdez was dumped into the Prince William Sound in Alaska. The aftermath of that fateful day was captured in a video that is now available on the Internet.
In 2007, clips from the clean-up appeared on YouTube. The eight-minute video is taken from a feature produced by the Alaska Health Project, and it focuses on the health and safety of the workers involved – many of whom were LIUNA members.
The spill that stretched across 470 miles and affected 1,300 miles of the Alaskan shore was the largest clean-up effort up to that time. Over 11,000 workers were hired by Exxon to restore the beaches. Much of the work put Laborers’ health and lives at risk.
This short film documents many of the hazards that workers faced. For example, 1,800 injuries were reported in addition to one heart attack and one death. Of the less serious injuries, many were sprains, cuts and lacerations. Also, being exposed to the oil’s benzene had long-term effects on many workers.
Jim Sampson, formerly the Business Agent for LIUNA Local Union #942 in Fairbanks, was the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor at the time. In the video, he recalls that many workers did not receive enough information about cleaning up chemical spills. “Some of the workers didn’t know what they were using,” he says.
The footage can serve as a good discussion piece for training classes because it offers practical solutions that could have minimized the dangers (e.g., the need for clothing decontamination). Many injuries could have been avoided by understanding the hidden hazards of crude oil accident sites.
We can learn a lot from the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the heroic efforts of the Laborers who cleaned up after this catastrophic event. To see the video, go to Worker Safety Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Alaska 1989 on YouTube. For more information on the government’s health and safety review, read the Alaska Oil Spill Health Hazard Evaluation on the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s website.
[Jennifer E. Jones]