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Frequently Asked Questions on Health Hazards and Protections

July 2, 2010


Q&A
  1. Are workers being protected against heat-related illness?

    Yes. Heat-related illness has been the most serious threat to cleanup worker health. Many cleanup workers are working long hours while wearing chemical resistant tyvek coveralls, boots and gloves, in the hot and humid weather along the Gulf. From the outset, OSHA has ensured that BP implement a robust program to protect workers from heat stress and heat stroke, a potentially life threatening hazard for people working in the clean up - BP has implemented a heat stress plan at all work sites, that includes a matrix that sets out specific work/rest requirements based on the heat and relative humidity, and whether workers are wearing protective clothing and equipment-which can exacerbate the hazard.

    In addition to the work/rest requirements, BP has implemented other protective measures:

    • Workers are trained in the hazards of heat and the precautions necessary to prevent heat stress.
    • Work begins early in the day to take advantage of cooler temperatures.
    • The plan requires that shaded rest areas be provided at all work areas.
    • Workers are required to drink liquids and take rest breaks throughout their work shift.
    • Heat stress monitors are on site at all times to ensure the work/rest regimen is adhered to, that workers are drinking enough to stay fully hydrated and that any workers exhibiting symptoms of heat related illness are immediately given fluids, rest and other appropriate care.

  2. Who must have access to respirators and respirator training?

    Those working on vessels near the source, where the oil is coming up from the well, have been equipped with respirators and trained in how and when to use them. The Interim Guidance also recommends that workers who are in the close vicinity of crude oil burns or workers who are engaged in washing materials or land using high pressure washers also have access to respirators and receive appropriate training and medical evaluation. These workers will be instructed to put on respirators in situations where air monitoring or other conditions indicate that they are needed.

  3. Why shouldn't everyone exposed to oil wear respirators?

    Outside of the source control area the oil is "weathered," which means that most of the dangerous substances, such as benzene, have evaporated. Weathered crude oil is therefore unlikely to pose an inhalation risk. OSHA and other Federal agencies have developed a sampling plan and conducted extensive monitoring of worker exposure and have found no levels of toxic chemicals that are of concern. (OSHA has taken almost 1000 samples to date). OSHA and other government agencies will continue monitoring to ensure that workers are not being exposed to unsafe levels of toxic chemicals. If we receive information that indicates a threat to worker health, we will change our recommendations.

    Using respirators improperly can be harmful to workers’ health. Some respirators, especially elastomeric air purifying respirators with disposable filter cartridges, can put a serious strain on the heart and lungs and can be dangerous for workers who suffer from respiratory or cardiac disease. These health effects can be exacerbated in the high heat conditions that workers are experiencing on the Gulf. For this reason, the employer must still comply with medical evaluation, storage and other requirements. Some workers may fail to pass the medical evaluation.

  4. Does OSHA allow workers to use respirators voluntarily?

    Even though comprehensive and routine air monitoring indicates that no overexposures exist from inhaling toxic chemicals, employers may permit workers to voluntarily wear respiratory protection as long as wearing a respirator does not in itself create a hazard for the worker. The "voluntary use" sections of OSHA's respirator standard must still be followed.

    One area where voluntary use of respirators may be helpful is when an individual is bothered by non-hazardous levels of hydrocarbon odor and cannot be relocated to another work area. In that case, a lightweight respirator with a carbon-impregnated odor-reduction filtering facepiece might help persons who are sensitive to odors and can be used without implementing the full OSHA respirator program.

    Some respirators, especially elastomeric air purifying respirators with disposable filter cartridges, can put a strain on the heart and lungs of some workers and are therefore not generally recommended for voluntary use. These problems can be exacerbated in high heat conditions. For this reason, the employer must still comply with medical evaluation, storage and other requirements.

  5. Does OSHA use its Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) to determine what exposures are safe for worker?

    No. OSHA recognizes that most of its PELs are outdated and inadequate measures of worker safety. In addition, crude oil is a complex mixture of chemical constituents that are not easily addressed by exposure limits for individual substances.

    In characterizing worker exposure OSHA instead relies on more up-to-date recommended protective limits set by organizations such as NIOSH, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), and the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), and not on the older, less protective PELS. Results of air monitoring are compared to the lowest known Occupational Exposure Limit for the listed contaminant for purposes of risk assessment and protective equipment recommendations

  6. Doesn't the fact that workers can smell the oil mean that they are inhaling toxic levels of fumes and vapors?

    Even though detection of hydrocarbon "odors" is common in areas contaminated by crude oil, odor is not generally a reliable indication of a health hazard. Most toxic chemicals emitted by oil can be smelled long before they reach levels that are harmful to workers. Some individuals, however, are bothered by odors and can develop symptoms such as dizziness, nose and throat irritation, headache or nausea. NOTE: These symptoms should be reported to the employer and individuals may need medical evaluation when these symptoms are severe or persistent.

  7. What kind of toxic chemical exposure assessments have been conducted?

    OSHA is currently monitoring worker exposures in a number of different work settings under a variety of relevant conditions and looking for levels of airborne exposure shown likely to cause health effects from chemical exposure to oil, weathered oil, dispersants, cleaning agents and other materials. Aside from occasional high levels in the immediate source control area, OSHA has found no levels of exposure that exceed any workplace exposure limits from its own monitoring, or from sampling results from other agencies. NIOSH is also conducting a Health Hazard Evaluation to evaluate worker exposure and health effects from the oil, dispersants, cleaning agents and other chemicals.

  8. How is OSHA or NIOSH going to determine whether workers are getting sick from exposure to oil or dispersants?

    OSHA is participating in a multi-agency effort to detect and follow-up on symptoms of illness. NIEHS is coordinating research to address chronic public health surveillance for any health effects that may indicate that workers or the public are getting sick from exposures associated with the Gulf Oil Spill. OSHA and NIOSH are also reviewing symptom and illness data collected by the Louisiana Department of Public Health and other States. NIOSH is developing a voluntary roster of workers to obtain a record of those who have participated in the cleanup and a mechanism to contact them about possible work-related symptoms of illness or injury. OSHA is encouraging all workers to report any symptoms or illnesses to their employer.

  9. What is being done to prevent or minimize skin exposures to crude oil?

    Employers are providing workers with protective gloves, boots and coveralls, free of cost. Appropriate hand hygiene is emphasized and provided in worker training classes. Hand washing facilities are made available for workers to ensure access following the removal of PPE items.

  10. How much training do workers need in order to comply with these recommendations?

    Workers working on the beach, cleaning up tarballs, need only 4 hours of training. OSHA has determined that workers on Vessels of Opportunity, because they have heavier exposure to weathered oil, the may need to conduct decontamination activities, and, in some cases may have to wear respirators, need additional training. OSHA, NIEHS and BP are working on expanding the training to at least 8 hours for workers on the Vessels of Opportunity. The training will be based on the recommendations in the NIOSH-OSHA Guidelines.

  11. Will OSHA be enforcing these recommendations?

    Most of the recommendations in the Guidance are already being implemented. OSHA and NIOSH will be working with the Unified Area Command and BP to prioritize the remaining issues and ensure that they are implemented. Where OSHA determines that worker safety is not ensured, OSHA can take any action necessary to ensure that workers are protected.

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