DOL and OSHA Must Protect Workers & Fishermen

This morning reports surfaced that at least 4 fisherman, who were working for BP to clean up the oil spill, have been hospitalized with health problems related to their exposure to oil.  My colleague Dr. Gina Solomon has blogged on why exposure to oil poses some very real health risks that justify the need for appropriate hazardous material trainings and the use of personal protective equipment, including respirators, for all workers exposed to oil in the air, water, and land during oil-cleanup activities.  Unfortunately, worker exposure to oil and its associated health impacts are common in these type of disasters.

We understand that the Department of Labor (DOL) has worked with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to generate and distribute oil spill cleanup safety guides and fact sheets throughout the Gulf region to better inform workers of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a department of the DOL, requirements that BP should be meeting, and their rights.  Unfortunately, reports from the ground demonstrate that workers are often not always being provided with adequate training and personal protective equipment as recommended in the fact sheets. 

Moreover, we are concerned that workers are not being given fitted respirators to prevent occupational diseases caused by breathing air contaminated with harmful chemicals in oil.  The OSHA Fact Sheet on Deepwater Horizon that was distributed in the Gulf Coast in early May, although helpful, only mentions the need for gloves, boots, overalls, and life jackets.  It does not reference a need or requirement for respirators.  OSHA Respiratory Protection standard 1910.134(a)(2) states “a respirator shall be provided to each employee when such equipment is necessary to protect the health of such employee” and that the employer shall establish a “respiratory protection program” in these situations.  BP is not requiring the use of respirators for workers and has not developed a respiratory protection program.  It is not clear to us, given the symptoms workers are reporting, that it is appropriate for them to be working without respirators.  

We’re nearing the point of a potential health crisis for workers.  It’s come to the point where some workers are being hospitalized – that means that the health impacts from working long hours in oil-contaminated areas were so bad they needed emergency treatment.  This tells us that there are probably many more workers out there who have experienced symptoms, but not sought treatment yet. 

In light of these health threats to workers, NRDC and local community groups in the Gulf Coast are demanding by letter that the DOL, OSHA, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH):

  1. DOL strongly enforce OSHA’s Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response standards requiring personal protective equipment, including respirators as required under Respiratory Protection standards, against BP;
  2. DOL/OSHA work with NIEHS to provide medical surveillance for workers;
  3. DOL/OSHA publicly release any data that is available on worker exposures;
  4. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) immediately initiate a Health Hazard Evaluation to investigate gulf oil spill worker health concerns; and
  5. DOL work with EPA and the Coast Guard to obtain independent air monitoring in places where workers and fisherman could come into contact with oil or may be exposed to fumes from the oil.

Now is the time for swift action to protect these workers and fishermen, before we repeat some of the well-documented physical and mental health issues that affected workers in previous oil disasters.

About the Authors

Albert Huang

Director of Environmental Justice and Senior Attorney, New York program

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