Cleanup Worker Safety Planning Must Not Get Forgotten in Fallout from BP Spill

by Matt Shudtz

Lizzie Grossman has a nice post over at The Pump Handle highlighting how the National Contingency Plan for major oil spills has significant gaps, which left government agencies and cleanup workers in the Gulf scrambling to figure out the right training programs and the best ways to protect workers' health and safety in the days, weeks, and months following the BP spill.

But, as Lizzie points out, one of the most powerful advocates for fixing the NCP -- the National Spill Commission -- has left the issue of cleanup workers' by the wayside:

Occupational health issues for responders are simply not [the] focus of the Commission's review: OSHA is only mentioned twice in the body of the report. The role of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in the response is not described at all, nor is the health impacts roster maintained by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. The body of the report mentions neither the National Institutes of Health nor the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Tens of thousands of people participated in cleanup efforts last summer. Despite the sweltering heat and some areas overrun with heavy equipment, no workers died and injury and illness rates were relatively low. Long-term health impacts of cleanup work will be more difficult to measure. But OSHA, NIEHS, and NIOSH deserve recognition for their work.

In September, we published a white paper with five recommendations for fixing the NCP, based in large part on good policies enacted in the aftermath of the spill:

  • EPA and the Coast Guard should require Regional Response Teams and the oil industry to develop a matrix of likely or foreseeable cleanup tasks for each level of spill, from routine to worst case scenario, in consultation with NIOSH and OSHA. The cleanup task matrix should be the basis for planning task-specific levels of training, air quality monitoring and sampling protocols, and personal protection equipment (PPE) choices.
  • EPA and the Coast Guard should include OSHA in the chain of command that approves Regional Contingency Plans and site specific contingency plans in order to ensure that cleanup workers’ health and safety are properly addressed.
  • EPA and the Coast Guard should require a NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation for any spill that demands a significant number of cleanup workers or long-term cleanup efforts, paid by the company responsible for the oil spill.
  • As they revise the National Contingency Plan, EPA and the Coast Guard should consult with volunteers, employees of oil spill response organizations, and occupational health specialists who have been involved in major disasters including the Valdez, Prestige, and Horizon spills.
  • To ensure that adequate training and worker protection are provided, regulators should permanently adopt the provisions of the June 10 Memorandum of Understanding between OSHA and the federal on-scene coordinator that guarantee OSHA’s leadership is included in all consultations about the implementation of cleanup under the national and regional contingency plans.

Our government ought to work not just to try to prevent the next disaster from happening, but also to be as prepared as possible for if it does. Reforming the National Contingency Plan on worker safety issues is a needed step in that direction.

© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform