BP Disaster Shows Challenges in Federal Decision-Making Structure on Safety Policies for Cleanup Workers, CPR Report Says

by Ben Somberg

September 14, 2010

Today CPR releases a new white paper, From Ship to Shore: Reforming the National Contingency Plan to Improve Protections for Oil Spill Cleanup Workers (press release), a look at how decisions were made about safety protections for cleanup workers in the aftermath of the BP oil spill -- and the lessons for the future.

The federal government's pre-disaster planning on worker safety issues didn't adequately consult the safety experts, and that meant the decision-making in the immediate wake of the spill couldn't be adequate. Too many cleanup workers in the Gulf were given inadequate training on the use of personal protective equipment. Employers and individual workers were left to determine on their own how to resolve the difficult question of what level of protections, such as respirators, to use.

OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are constrained to limited roles for planning for and implementing regulations related to oil spill disasters under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the statute governing oil spill response. As a result, the federal government's advance planning for disaster response doesn't adequately incorporate agency expertise best suited for planning for worker safety issues in disaster cleanup.

Our report credits OSHA and NIOSH staff for developing workable solutions to problems with training, air monitoring, personal protective equipment, and recordkeeping in the weeks following the spill, demonstrating how invaluable their expertise is during the response—and would have been in developing initial regulations, had they been involved in that process. The recommendations in the report are mostly changes that could be made by the EPA and the Coast Guard.

The report's recommendations also call for the White House to seek an emergency, supplemental appropriation for OSHA to replace the substantial extra resources consumed by this unprecedented response.

The white paper was written by CPR Member Scholars Rebecca Bratspies, Alyson Flournoy, Thomas McGarity, Sidney Shapiro, Rena Steinzor, and CPR Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz.

The CPR report actually goes easy on OSHA and NIOSH, placing the blame for many mistakes on the “original sin” of their limited role in national response policies. I am more critical of OSHA and NIOSH. For decades, OSHA and NIOSH air sampling has routinely been used to deny that workers are significantly exposed to chemicals and need respirators or other protections. What happened with air sampling in the Gulf spill was unusual only in terms of the large numbers of workers and samples and the media coverage. Over 95% of OSHA air sampling in all workplaces shows employers to be in compliance with exposure limits, usually by orders of magnitude. NIOSH’s Gulf Health Hazard Evaluations (HHEs) are doing the same despite using more protective exposure limits. It was not surprising that Obama’s OSHA and NIOSH went the air sampling route in the Gulf instead of emphasizing the need to minimize exposures – a precautionary approach. It’s what OSHA and NIOSH always do. BP, the Coast Guard, NOAA, and OSHA and NIOSH created a united front, all saying that their sampling results did not exceed occupational exposure limits. Heat stress and OSHA respirators requirements for medical clearance, fit-testing, and being clean-shaven were used as added excuses to deny respirators. In addition, OSHA and NIOSH: • Did not provide a qualitative exposure assessment of workers’ chemical exposures • Did not collect or analyze bulk samples of oil or various stages of weathered oil to find out exactly what was in them • Downplayed health effects information of crude oil and dispersants, never mentioning cancer or birth defects • Stated that acute health effects like headaches were merely symptoms, not health effects • Blamed all worker health problems on heat. No explanation was ever given why workers could not suffer from both heat and chemical exposures at the same time. • Never publically challenged BP’s utterly inadequate MSDSs on crude and weathered crude
— Eileen Senn
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