• Information Date
  • Presented To
    National Response Team
  • Speaker(s)
    David Michaels
  • Status
Archive Notice - OSHA Archive

NOTICE: This is an OSHA Archive Document, and may no longer represent OSHA Policy. It is presented here as historical content, for research and review purposes only.

Remarks Prepared For
Dr. David Michaels
Assistant Secretary of Labor
For Occupational Safety and Health

National Response Team
Worker Safety and Health Technical Conference
Washington, DC
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Good morning, and thank you all for attending. This conference is an important part of the National Response Team's preparedness to make sure workers are protected during responses to emergencies.

I would like to thank Dana Tulis and Captain Gautier for supporting this conference and worker safety and health.

The National Response Team is responsible for coordinating the federal emergency preparedness and response to oil and hazardous substances releases. I am grateful that you are on the job when our nation needs you most, and I have had the opportunity this year to observe your excellent, professional work.

As you know, OSHA was involved in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill cleanup efforts from the beginning, working particularly closely with NIOSH and NIEHS. On May 3, I traveled to New Orleans and met with Dr. Margaret Kitt from NIOSH, Chip Hughes from NIEHS, Sam Coleman from EPA and Rear Admiral Landry from the Coast Guard. Together, we laid the foundation for how worker safety and health will be overseen by the federal agencies, including sending a clear message to BP that all workers must be protected from all hazards. We wanted to make sure that the operations were conducted as effectively, efficiently and safely as possible.

Throughout this conference, you will learn in great detail what was done to protect workers during the response. Here are a few highlights:

Before anyone knew there was an oil spill, the Coast Guard activated the National Response Team, including OSHA. The Coast Guard's continued sharing of information and welcoming of assistance clearly made it easier for other agencies to integrate into the response. This openness permitted OSHA, NIOSH, NIEHS, EPA and the Coast Guard to work together within the Unified Command and aggressively ensure that BP and its contractors protect the safety and health of workers involved in the oil spill response and cleanup operations.

Without this cooperation among the agencies, we would not have been nearly as effective during the response.

By working within the Unified Command, we were able to protect workers to levels beyond OSHA's standards. For example, when characterizing chemical exposures, we relied on the lowest occupational exposure levels and not the older, less protective, permissible exposure limits in OSHA standards.

OSHA also stressed throughout the response that decisions regarding PPE needed to be based on a scientific characterization of the hazards. OSHA conducted its own independent air sampling, taking more than 7,000 exposure measurements both on shore and on marine vessels. OSHA and NIOSH also reviewed more than 89,000 exposure measurements from BP.

This high level of protection and attention to the scientific characterization of risks had a major impact on all our decisions.

Very early on, we recognized that heat and fatigue were going to be significant issues. However, OSHA has no specific standards for these hazards, although employers have an obligation under the general duty clause of our law to protect workers from heat-related illnesses.

The intense heat in the Gulf was probably the greatest threat to the health of cleanup workers. Workers were often working in full protective gear, at very high temperature and humidity. From the beginning, OSHA insisted that BP implement strong and comprehensive protections from the heat, including rest breaks, shaded rest areas, hydration liquids, and sunscreen.

While conducting site visits, OSHA personnel noted inconsistent and uneven implementation of BP's heat stress program. Each staging area was implementing its own program; some were more protective than others.

We immediately made it clear that BP had to fix these deficiencies. I also brought these and other issues to the attention of Admiral Allen, who fully supported the program. Our exchange led to a Memorandum of Understanding between OSHA and the Federal On-Scene Coordinator to clarify our respective roles.

BP then implemented a system-wide, comprehensive heat protection program.

There were almost 1,000 close calls involving heat, situations in which workers showed signs of heat effects. I have no doubt that had we not been there and insisted on these protections, there would have been deaths.

This program that OSHA insist BP implement for the tens of thousands of worker on the spill is a model for other private sector employers to use to protect workers against the serious dangers of heat-related illnesses.

OSHA's authority in the Gulf Coast region is limited to three miles off shore. However, since there was concern for the health and safety of captains and crews of the vessels of opportunity, much of our work went beyond our normal jurisdiction. We wanted to ensure that all workers were protected from all hazards at all times.

Essential to this emergency response was our ability to clearly and quickly communicate hazards and risks to employers and workers. Within days of the incident and long before shoreline cleanup began, OSHA and the Coast Guard were reviewing BP's proposed training program. OSHA made it clear: All cleanup workers would need to be adequately trained, local people would have to be hired for the work in the cleanup efforts, and the training would have to be done in a language and vocabulary that the workers understood.

To ensure this was being done, OSHA inspectors regularly spoke with workers and continually monitored training. The Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, is fluent in Spanish. During a visit to an oil-contaminated beach undergoing cleanup, she spoke in Spanish to some of the workers. One worker admitted to her that he didn't understand most of the training material. Obviously, this was a problem that had to be addressed. We made a continual, clear demand to BP to provide workers with training that addressed the risks of their job at a level and in a language appropriate for the individual workers.

In addition, within OSHA we realized that we needed to make sure our own Compliance Officers could speak with these workers in their native language. We assigned staff members who are fluent in Vietnamese and Spanish, and we brought in translators where they were needed most.

Along the Gulf Coast, more than 50,000 workers were trained in how to work safely as they cleaned up the oil spill threatening the region's natural resources. However, beyond this attention to worker training, we also realized that we had another important audience to address.

Communities and other organizations were tremendously concerned for the health and safety of these workers. So, while we of course made effective use of our websites, we also made a point to reach out to the communities through continual town hall meetings, face to face meetings, and numerous conference calls with local leaders -- answering their questions, letting them know what we were finding, and assuring the public that workers were being protected. We also distributed more than 35,000 pamphlets and other educational materials on the hazards facing cleanup workers -- in three languages, as well as information on our 1-800 phone number for questions or concerns.

The BP oil spill was a disaster. The initial fire took the lives of 11 workers. There was no way to recover this tragic loss. However, by working together and focusing on a high level of protection for the cleanup workers, we prevented this disaster from taking any more lives.

We don't know when the next major incident will occur, nor do we know the hazards it will present to workers. However, we can discuss what we know and we can learn to apply these lessons to other incidents.

This is why the efforts of the Worker Safety and Health Subcommittee, and this conference, is vitally important. Workers are the most important resource in any emergency response. By learning how to better protect workers, we will improve emergency responses.

I appreciate your willingness to contribute to this conference, I am grateful for your commitment to your profession which serves our nation so well, and I wish you all success.

Thank you.