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OSHA Assistant Secretary, Dr. David Michaels CSPAN Transcript

Host: And we're back with our final guest of the morning; let me introduce you to him. Dr. David Michaels is the Assistant Labor Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health responsibility for OSHA. And uh very much involved in the clean up of the Gulf and the workers who are being deployed there. You gave a speech in Baltimore on Monday, I was looking at some of the reporting of it online and hear is what they said that you told the crowd in Baltimore. Among the lessons OSHA has already learned from the Gulf catastrophe and that BP has admitted to are that the potentials for disaster were grossly underestimated and that past injury rates are poor indicators of future catastrophic events. What are you saying there?

David Michaels: Well, very commonly after a major event, or even not after one, the oil industry will say that you know our facilities are very safe because the OSHA reported injury rate is low. In other words, the slips, trips and falls are not very significant. We know that the risk of high consequence, low probability events have nothing to do with whether or not people are slipping, or tripping or falling but their about the safety precautions taken. Its like saying the airline is safe because the pilot hasn't been injured and we had experience with oil refineries, we've had explosion at British Petroleum (BP) in 2005 that killed 15 workers, injured 170 or 180 others. The injury rate at that facility was quite low also. So what we are trying to do is focus the oil industry on how to take safety seriously in a very different way, not just reporting injuries, which are important, we certainly don't want to underestimate their importance, but to say you got to look at the process safety issues, what sort of back ups do you have, what sort of steps are you taking to avoid the catastrophic events that killed workers in Texas City or killed 11 workers on the Deep Water Horizon.

Host: How about if we take that world view then and apply it to the 20,000 people already being deployed to cleanup in the Gulf?

David Michaels: That's right, we are very concerned, OSHA is on the ground, we're on the beaches, in the marshes, in the vessels all over the water examining what's going on to ensure that those workers are safe. It's a tough job, we understand that the clean up has to be done as quickly as possible, but we have to make sure that those workers are safe. Eleven workers have been lost already we certainly can't allow anymore to be lost in this cleanup effort.

Host: OSHA has a number of watchdog groups that are critics of the standards and the application of them. I brought two of them in because I wanted to have you respond to them. Here is, ah, the National Resources Defense Council blog."OSHA limits don't protect Gulf workers, " is the headline on it."OSHA standards are fig leaf that BP is using to pretend that workers are safe. Most serious workplace hazards are not regulated at all by OSHA and for those that are the regulations are both out-of-date and weak most notably for the situation in the Gulf. OSHA has failed to update permissible exposure limits for toxic chemicals the levels that are in place were largely adopted wholesale by OSHA back in 1971."

David Michaels: You may be surprised to hear me say that, but I absolutely agree. In fact I was one of the firmest critics of OSHA before President Obama asked me to head the agency because I said exactly that. OSHA limits are outrageously out-of-date; we have about 500 chemical standards, 470 of which were adopted from an industry voluntary list in 1968 and the other things I've heard you say about the OSHA standards are true. We, because of our legislation, it's extremely difficult to update these permissible exposure limits, but let me be very clear. In the Gulf, we are not saying BP has to protect people to those limits cause, they're not safe. We're saying that they have to go down way below that, they really have to protect people from virtually any chemical exposure. So what we are telling people is don't refer to our legal limits, what we're trying to do here is make sure workers are safe.

Host: Another criticism just came out yesterday by the investigative journalism group ProPublica: "Experts training for Gulf workers may be inadequate, " here's what they write."As Gulf cleanup workers continue to report health problems, the workplace safety expert and a leading Louisiana health official have expressed concern that BP's 4-hour training course for responders may not be adequately preparing them to work in contaminated areas. The rules state that post emergency cleanup workers must undergo 24 hours of training before working in contaminated areas, but a 1990 directive by OSHA following the Exxon Valdez disaster sliced this requirement to four hours for oil spill workers conducting lower risk tasks such as beach cleanup. A professor at Hunter College in NY said four hours is probably not enough to teach untrained workers to recognize and respond to the risks they are facing."

David Michaels: Well again, we agree with much of what's said there. Uhm for every specific worker protection, you have to look at the assessment of the hazard and that's what we're doing for workers on the beach who are cleaning up what we call weathered oil. Oil that comes in and it's lost all of its volatile chemicals, we're very concerned that people are not exposed in terms of their skin, but we are not concerned with airborne exposure to them, for example, and we believe four hours of training for them may be adequate. On the other hand, we told BP that for workers on vessels who are out pulling up boom, which is contaminated by oil, more training is needed.

Host: People are already calling in so let's get to some of the viewers' questions.

David Michaels: Sure.

Host: We are going to begin with a call from Palm Beach, Florida. Lawrence, you are on the air for Dr. Michaels, go ahead please.

Lawrence (the caller): Ah yeah, I would just like to say to thank you to C-SPAN for allowing us citizens of this country a forum to voice our opinions and thoughts, and thank you sir for joining us this morning. Maybe this isn't really so much in your direction, but "Why are we burning this oil? " You know we hear about the parish presidents telling us that there are X amount of numbers of skimmers that could be out there picking up this oil and we are talking about the safety and the health of the workers uhm what about the safety and health of everybody in the world? We are all breathing the same air, we are talking about global warming almost everyday we hear it on TV and then we see these, you know, these boats out there burning huge slicks of oil, and we see these columns of black nasty smoke going up into the air. I mean does, does, does and the seas looks relatively calm. Why aren't we getting these extra skimmers out there where are the resources to help find the better more ecological way to clean this up instead of compounding the problem and putting more of this toxic smoke into the air?

David Michaels: You know I certainly understand your question, it's again that choice is not a part of our jurisdiction or even a part of my expertise, but we certainly are concerned about human exposure to the uhm particles and the other materials put off by the burning oil and we're concerned about that to the point of where if workers are near those vessels that are burning they certainly need extra protection. Uhm the decision in terms of whether to burn the oil versus essentially allowing it to get into the ocean and before it could be picked up. The decision, it's essentially weighing out those two, I understand how it's a tough decision, but I think actually that burning the oil probably makes more sense, and if there's so much oil that is burning very quickly it's much more efficient we are not going to be able to get all of it all of it quickly before it does more damage if it could get around the water and up to the beaches.

Host: In addition to this we have been reading a lot about the stew of oil natural gas and also the dispersants that BP employed including Corexit earlier on. How much do we know scientifically about the dangers of exposure to dispersants?

David Michaels: Well we certainly don't know enough and one of the things that we are looking at is what the exposures currently are and we've got a bunch of experiments going on where we have picked up samples in the soup: water, oil, gas dispersant mixture we are heating it up and then measuring what's in the air to see how we can protect those workers uhm certainly we have to be safe and make sure they aren't over exposed to some of these materials because they could be dangerous uhm I know that some people said well the cerfaxtent the uhm dispersant is just like dish soap but we are certainly much more concerned about it, it's like dish soap but it has a tremendously higher concentration of cerfaxtent and obviously causes us some worry.

Host: Dr. Michaels is an epidemiologist by training, during the Clinton Administration he served a couple of years as the Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environmental Safety and Health and in the intervening years before his appointment as the Assistant Labor Secretary for OSHA, he was chair of George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. That was a mouthful (laughter).

David Michaels: It's too long a name; I'm sorry (laughter).

Host: That's okay; I got through it (laughter). Let's take our next telephone call from New Iberia, Louisiana. This is Danny on the Democrats Line. Good morning to you Danny.

Danny (caller): Yes, good morning. Uh I think the answer we looking at this whole thing is basically have everything, every skimming device and every suction device in the world rally to our help as they do to the earthquake victims and regions all over the world, and I think this is the only solution the dispersants are only adding to the pollution and we absolutely have to just suck all of this up and I don't know if the problem is that it is too expensive to do that or whatever, but it's too expensive not to do that. And also I've been watching this discussion among many discussion we have in this country, uh the catastrophe with the stock market and so forth and I see all of these people that call in that get right wing news that are so helpful, hateful and don't want to help fellow Americans, now I understand their leadership the Republican Party and their noise machine it's not in their DNA to help the common man, they're always about the corporations and the wealthy. That's in their DNA, but I cannot for the life of me understand why average everyday citizens working people will buy into this when they are being hurt and they see fellow working people, hard struggling people in south LA, being victimized like this and losing everything.

Host: Danny I am going to jump in at that point. Thank you for your call.

David Michaels: You raised a couple of important issues, one I want to talk about is the Administration is taking a very aggressive response to this on many levels and I'm involved in worker safety and you read a lot about the environmental issues we're trying to get that oil up or essentially make BP get the oil up as fast as they can using every method possible. But one thing that hasn't gotten press which you've talked about is the Administration's efforts to reach out to working people who are being dislocated, who are losing their jobs, losing their livelihood. Across the Gulf states, the Labor Department supports one-stop employment centers across the states uhm trying to get money out to essentially help people connect to jobs, connect to jobs either in clean up, or in other areas help them with unemployment compensation, there are lots of efforts going on because we know that individual Americans across the United States are being very direly effected by this.

Host: Would you explain your relationship interface with BP? How does it work, does BP request the workers to be tested? How does that work?

David Michaels: Our relationship with BP now is we are regular, we tell them what to do uhm through two mechanisms. One is directly on the site we have 25 OSHA compliance officers going from site to site, every stationary onto some boats looking at what's going on and when we see a hazard we tell BP here is a hazard we want that abated we want that fixed immediately at the same time we raise those same issues through the instant command system through the Coast Guard to ensure that BP hears about it at higher levels and that also that same information goes out for all the staging areas and so when we see a hazard in one situation, we don't have to repeat our complaints over and over again.

Host: Getting alot of people on Twitter asking questions about why OSHA isn't requiring BP to have workers wear respirators.

David Michaels: That's a great question, and one in which we have been wrestling with. Every worker protection effort has to be based on the hazard assessment and so any situation we look at the hazard, we do measurements, we do temperature readings and say okay what do we need here to protect the workers, as I said before if people are on boats and near burns that's one set of protection needed but on the coast when we look at it we say well essentially our measurements are very low or non-existent in terms of chemical hazards. There's a flip side to giving people respirators though, respirators especially the ones we are talking about which has the two canisters on the side or one canister in the middle have to be fit very well, they are very hard to work with or work in uhm. They pull very much on the heart, on the lungs; they are physical burdens if workers are already sick, if they're smokers in many cases it would be dangerous to give them respirators. Because of the risk of skin contact, we've insisted that these workers all wear chemical resistant gloves and boots and tyveck chemical resistant suits, they are working in 100 degree temperature, high humidity, hot sun that already is a very difficult job to do. If we put those workers in respirators, we could actually cause some serious damage. Fortunately, we don't believe we need to but we have to weigh those things out. At this point we see it as being on the coast, on the beach, not a risk that requires respirators. If that changes though and we are out there measuring everyday, we're working closely with EPA, with NOAA, with the other agencies, doing measurements, assessing the risk, if that changes we will insist on respirators but that will also mean that people will have to work even slower, take much more breaks, we would have to do medical exams, if we move to respirators we will have to tell some people not to work, we're prepared to do that. But that, it's a big step to do that and it has to be driven by a scientific assessment of the hazards and right now it appears we only need that in certain situations, I should say we are working closely with NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) examining this question, we hope to have a much more firm policy out for public comment soon as well on that.

Host: For Secretary Michaels next call is Lafayette, LA, Carl, Republican line.

Carl (caller) Hi There!
David Michaels: Hello.

Host: Morning.

Carl (caller): I think there is a big difference between an effective regulator and humiliated bureaucrats if you look at the etymology of the word regulator it goes back to the frontier days, the dangerous days on the frontier and there is a lot of danger going on in the Gulf of Mexico because we don't have effective regulators we've got a bunch of humiliated bureaucrats claiming expertise on a subject that they don't understand, go back and read about the Taxin boys in Lancaster, PA.

Host: Carl I've got to stop you at that point and you've made your larger issue which is that regulators are tackling topics we don't understand.

David Michaels: Well uh we have access to the top environmental health people in the country. We meet on a regular basis, if we don't understand then unfortunately there's probably no one who understands it. But right now we're in a position where when we tell BP what to do, they do it. You may have heard or read that some weeks ago we had some difficulties, we felt BP was not responding we sent a letter to Admiral Allen, and through the joint command and Admiral Allen communicated that directly to BP and they responded very quickly, and since then they have responded quickly to everything we have asked them to do so we think this, this Administration-wide approach is working quite well, and we're able to get BP to do what we need them to do in terms of worker safety.

Host: Next phone call is from Charlotte, TN, Joseph, Independent line. Good morning to you sir.

Joseph (caller): Good morning, comment and a question, comment; I'm in 3% of the world population using 25% of the oil. What's wrong with that picture? Uhm the question is I'd like to know why these dispersants are banned in the UK and uh why are they being used here being that they are banned in just about everywhere else in the world and that's it, thanks.

David Michaels: Well I appreciate your question but it's unfortunately one that I don't know the answer to.

Host: Going back to lessons learned from past disasters, on the National Resources Defense Council blog I told you there was an interesting comment added afterwards from a woman named Myrle Savage who describes herself as a female general foreman during the Exxon Valdez oil spill uh beach clean up in 1989."I am one of the 11,000+ cleanup workers from the Exxon Valdez oil spill who is suffering from health issues from that toxic cleanup without compensation from Exxon. A Dr. Riki Ott visited me in 2007 to explain about the toxicants spraying on the beaches and informed me that Exxon's medical records had surfaced in litigation by sick workers in 1994 had been sealed from the public making it impossible to hold Exxon responsible for their actions. Beach crews breathed in creed oil that splashed off the rocks and into the air, the toxic exposure turned into chronic breathing conditions, central nervous system problems, neurological impairment, chronic respiratory diseases and more." She has a Web site that talks about an ongoing longshoremen's claim for workers for medical problems. I guess I turn to you with uh what has our Federal Government done to study the effects of the Valdez and what are we doing to change this response, this result?

David Michaels: That's a great question, I can't speak to what we've studied in terms of Exxon Valdez, but I can say I think we've learned a lot from the mistakes made during that period. Uhm there's no question that if we don't start keeping track of people now, we won't know if they have health effects five, ten, or twenty years from now.

Host: So we have to know who the workers are that are being employed.

David Michaels: Exactly and what they're exposures are. Now, obviously our first priority has to be to protect workers now and if we do a good job the results fifteen, twenty years from now will show that. But while OSHA is working very hard to make sure workers are protected, agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services, in particular the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, are starting essentially a rostering of every worker employed by BP and their contractors. Finding out who they are, some information about them, where they work, we're going to hook that in with exposure monitoring so that we can know what people are being exposed to. So if people get sick later on down the line, we would be able to answer some questions but again this goes back to our earlier question. Who's involved in this? It's not just OSHA and the Department of Health and Human Services but next week the Institute of Medicine, which is in some way the leading medical scientific organization in the country, is bringing together a panel of America's experts to have a public meeting in New Orleans to discuss exactly this. How do we roster people, how do we follow them into the future, what measurements do we need to answer this question, so if people do get sick down the line we'll know something about. But again our my focus is really on protecting people now.

Host: Next call Oak Park, MI, Mitchell Democrats line.

Mitchell (caller): Good morning.

Host: Good morning.

Dr. Michaels: Good morning.

Mitchell (caller): I would like to ask Dr. Michaels have the residents of the uh uh the Gulf been put on notice that they might have to leave when the hurricane set in and they bring this air I mean bring this oil onshore and it ah lands in the residents. Will those people be put on notice that they might have to move?

Dr. Michaels: I wish I could ah answer that question; my focus is really on worker health, uhm so I don't know what plans are made around the residents. I know that for every worker area the station area sometimes where there are hundreds of workers working we have insisted that BP have an extreme weather plan and so when there is a lightning storm, there's a plan which has to be implemented to make sure those workers are protected, when there's a hurricane how are we going to protect those workers, and every one of those cases there's a plan in some cases there are boats sitting near by, sitting near the station areas available to take people up river immediately if we think a hurricane is coming. So there are lots of plans being made to protect workers in the event of a hurricane, and I assume plans like that exist for residents, I just can't talk about them.

Host: Wondering about the safety, there's a lot of military people who are also involved in this. What is you interaction with the military so that our military personnel also have the same kinds of protections?

David Michaels: Well, it's all uhm done through the Coast Guard and all of our…

Host: The National Command Center.

David Michaels: The National Command Center, exactly but it's worth talking about the mosaic of coverage in terms of worker safety and it's a bit of a problem now. It's not a problem in the Gulf because we said we are not going to let it be a problem, but OSHA has jurisdiction over private sector workers, uhm on the ground and up to three miles out. Beyond three miles like where the Deepwater Horizon, OSHA actually has no jurisdiction but we work very closely with the Coast Guard and because we are all working together, we've said it doesn't make a difference where people are, we are going to protect them. But public sector workers in LA, MS, AL, and GA have no OSHA coverage. Many states provide workers with OSHA coverage but those four states are among the many states (there are about 25 states) that have said public sector workers have no coverage and under Federal law we cannot, we Federal OSHA, cannot cover public sector workers. And so right now in the Gulf if you were working for a parish in LA or for a county in FL, we still trying to make sure you are protected, we don't differentiate between who your employer is but if we had to move to issuing citations and we are prepared to do that, we can issue a citation against BP and give them a fine but we can't cite the state or county in any of those four states because they have no coverage. Now that would change if Congress passes the Protecting America's Workers Act, which is legislation being considered uhm because that is one of the provisions to ensure all workers in the United States have OSHA coverage and we support that.

Host: Last question for you is from Portland, Maine, John, Independent line.

John (caller): Yes, Mr. Secretary, I, yes Mr. Secretary, Mr. Secretary, I'm just a little concerned about the fact that you come onto this program and you offering your advice but you're not even know aware of what the concerns are with these dispersants that they using down there, and so you can't even comment on what you going to do for your own OSHA-covered workers there and if there were an incident where it was going to be dangerous for those workers don't you think it would behoove you to be the first one to wave the flag to the American people? Thank you.

Dr. Michaels: You know, your question about dispersants is, the reason that they've been banned in England and in other countries actually has to do with the animal testing in terms of ecological exposure so we have all the information about human exposure or we're protecting people at basis, but I am not an expert on ecological protection and I tried as a scientist I try not answer questions that are outside my realm that I might be speculating on and so I've held back on answering that question. But I think we are doing a good job on protecting the workers down there.

Host: So, uh I guess as we wrap up here, you most want our viewers to know what about your role in the workers, their health.

Dr. Michaels: What I really want people to know is workers have a right to a safe workplace and that's true on the Gulf and everywhere else, and so if any worker on the Gulf or anywhere else feels that their rights are being infringed, if they're being asked to do work that is unsafe, if they want OSHA to come in, they should call us. And they can go to our Web site or call 1-800-321-OSHA and we'll get there, we wanna make sure they're safe.

Host: Dr. Michaels thank you for being here, people have lots of questions as they watch this those cleanup workers over there, and we appreciate your time and being here to answer questions.

Dr. Michaels: Thank you so much.

Host: We are going to take a break and go to C-SPAN radio for an update on other news events happening and then our last half hour will be leading into Tony Hayward's testimony before the House panel that is questioning him today. We'll be right back.

Bobbi Jackson: It is 9:33 here in Washington, DC and in the headlines as you've been hearing a day after agreeing to the 20 billion dollar victims compensation fund that BP's chief executive is ready to tell Congress that quote "he was personally devastated by the explosion of the rig and understands the anger Americans feel toward him and his company." In prepared testimony Tony Hayward says the explosion and sinking of the rig quote "never should have happened " and as we've been telling you live coverage of Mr. Hayward testifying before House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee starts live at 10 A.M. Eastern live on C-SPAN radio, C-SPAN 3 television and online at cspan.org.