Keeping Workers Safe During Oil Spill Response and Cleanup Operations
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Update on OSHA Activities to protect oil spill workers in the Gulf
August 31, 2010

Oil spill workers are on the front lines of the nation's response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Depending on their jobs, these workers can face hazards from heat, falls, drowning, fatigue, loud noise, sharp objects, as well as bites from insects, snakes, and other wild species native to the Gulf Coast area. Workers may also face exposure to crude oil, oil constituents and byproducts, dispersants, cleaning products and other chemicals being used in the cleanup process. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is providing proactive, vigorous leadership to fully evaluate each of these risks and ensure that BP meets its obligation to protect workers.

OSHA is working as part of the coordinated federal response which includes the U.S. Coast Guard and other government agencies that deal with health and the environment to monitor the health and safe hazards facing workers involved in the oil spill response. We are evaluating BP's efforts and looking to see that BP puts in place all of the precautions needed to protect workers from the hazards associated with their cleanup work.

  • OSHA is working with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to evaluate the training that BP is providing to worker and determine if it meets OSHA's requirements and covers the information workers need to know. Emphasis is placed on reviewing materials and monitoring actual classes to see if training is provided in a language and vocabulary they understand. OSHA, along with NIEHS, continues to monitor this program. See OSHA’s fact sheet on training requirements.

  • OSHA personnel were deployed to the Gulf the week of April 26th. Since then OSHA personnel have been deployed to all 17 staging areas in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. OSHA staff is on the ground monitoring worker safety and health and assessing whether BP is providing appropriate worker safety and health protections. In coordination with the U.S. Coast Guard, OSHA staff also board near-shore vessels doing booming, skimming operations, and in situ burning operations, and are stationed on offshore vessels for longer periods.

  • Every day OSHA has had over 146 professionals protecting workers throughout the Gulf Region, between 25 and 50 of whom are assigned solely to the Oil Response Cleanup. OSHA staff is in the field and on boats to make sure BP is protecting cleanup workers from health and safety hazards. In addition, OSHA's Health Response Team (from Salt Lake City) arrived in Louisiana on May 6th to provide technical support (for worker exposure monitoring) to OSHA response site personnel.

  • OSHA staff has made over 4,202 site visits, covering the vessels of opportunity, staging areas, decontamination, distribution, and deployment sites.

  • When OSHA finds safety problems on site visits or learns about them from workers, it brings them to the attention of BP and makes sure they are corrected. OSHA also raises its concerns through the Unified Command so they are addressed across the entire response area. OSHA is looking to see that BP and its contractors are giving their workers, free of charge, appropriate personal protective equipment such as boots, gloves and other protective equipment as needed.

  • At this time, a key health concern of OSHA's is serious heat-related illnesses. Fatigue, from working long hours, is also a problem.

  • In response to recently received information, OSHA increased the health and safety training requirements for crews on vessels engaged in offshore oil recovery.

Monitoring Chemical Exposures

Potential health effects from inhaling chemicals such as oil, weathered oil, oil dispersants, cleaning agents, and others are an ongoing concern that OSHA is continuing to monitor, assess and characterize. (Read our frequently asked questions on health hazards and protections, including information on respirators and other personal protective equipment.)

Aside from those workers on ships directly adjacent to the leak who are exposed to fresh oil, most of the cleanup workers are exposed to weathered oil, where the toxic volatile substances have evaporated.

To ensure that workers are not exposed to dangerous levels of toxic chemicals, OSHA reviewed the BP monitoring data and has brought in a team of industrial hygienists to conduct its own independent air monitoring both on shore and on the cleanup vessels. OSHA is characterizing worker exposures in each job task so that workers can receive necessary protections from air contaminants. The Agency has developed a sampling protocol and strategy and has taken samples resulting in over 5,731 exposure assessments. Additionally, OSHA is posting our sampling results with clear information about where the samples were collected and what jobs the workers were doing when they were monitored.

OSHA is also looking at BP's sample data and sampling information gathered by other agencies, including NIOSH and EPA. We are making sure that all of our sample results are similar and that OSHA is not missing anything that might indicate a problem for workers.

OSHA is also analyzing the "soup" of crude oil, oil by-products, dispersants, and any other material to determine what hazards the mixture might present workers as they respond to and cleanup the oil spill.

Protecting Workers from Chemical Exposures

OSHA is aggressively monitoring BP and its contractors to ensure that they comply with worker safety and health protections, including providing required personal protective equipment (PPE) to all workers involved in the clean up. OSHA has required BP to provide protective gloves, boots, and where appropriate, coveralls to all workers involved in the clean up operations. OSHA has staff on the ground evaluating whether the equipment is properly used by workers.

OSHA is aware that reports of health symptoms experienced by some workers have raised concern about short and long-tern health effects of the oil products and dispersants. OSHA and NIOSH continue to investigate these reports and recently published Interim Guidance for Protecting Deepwater Horizon Response Workers and Volunteers. The guidance lists the types of chemicals and other hazards workers face while doing different jobs. It recommends that workers on vessels involved in source-control and burning oil, as well as workers who are pressure washing oily PPE and other equipment, use respirators for certain situations:

  • Vessel Activities near the Leak: Respirators are recommended for some jobs to protect against breathing in the chemicals in crude oil. Chemical levels in the air can vary and spikes in chemical levels can happen because sea, weather, and source conditions change. If spikes are expected or indicated by an exposure assessment for a specific task, or if workers report symptoms or health effects, then respirators should be used. Workers should be given a half-face elastomeric respirator with organic vapor/P100 cartridges. When eye protection is also needed, workers should be given a full-face elastomeric respirator with organic vapor/P100 cartridges.

  • Vessels Involved in Burning Oil: Respirators are not needed in most cases because vessels move far upwind of the burn site. But, because winds shift, NIOSH-approved escape respirators should be available to crews on these vessels. If the wind shifts and the burn plume moves towards the vessel, then workers would be told to put on their escape respirators and leave the area.

  • Pressure Washing Oily PPE and Equipment: Pressure washing oily PPE and equipment can create oil mist. If workers are close enough that they could breathe in the oil mist while using the pressure washer or helping with the operation, then they should be given a P100 disposable filtering facepiece along with the other eye and face protection they are required to use.

Health Effects Follow-up

OSHA is working closely with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) to investigate the causes of health effects suffered by workers. NIOSH is conducting Health Hazard Evaluations to determine the causes of worker illnesses (including an investigation into the recent incident where seven fishermen were sent to the hospital). NIOSH is also assembling a roster of workers who are participating in the response effort that will help in assessing respiratory hazards from exposure to oil or other substances present in the cleanup operations.

OSHA is also working with ASPR and NIOSH to establish a long-term health surveillance program for the workers involved in this event.

Worker Rights

All workers involved in the oil spill response and cleanup have the right to a safe workplace just as they would in any other job. They are also protected if they are fired or in any way retaliated against for raising safety concerns to an employer, participating in safety and health activities or exercising their rights under the Act. Workers may file a complaint with OSHA if they believe that their employer is not following OSHA standards or there are serious hazards. OSHA keeps worker information confidential.

If workers think their work is unsafe of if they are unsure, they should have been instructed to STOP and ASK their supervisor. They can also call OSHA at 1-800-321- OSHA (6742). TTY 1-877-889-5627.

For more information, visit OSHA's oil spill cleanup response Web page:
http://www.osha.gov/oilspills/index.html