Worker Safety in the Gulf
Air Date: Week of June 11, 2010
David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health. (dol.gov)
Many workers cleaning up the oil in the Gulf have been falling ill due to exposure to pollutants from oil and dispersants. Host Jeff Young talks with David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, about what his agency is doing to ensure worker safety in the Gulf of Mexico.
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YOUNG: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. Estimates of the flow of oil in the Gulf keep growing. And amid the fight to contain it, workers are falling ill. We’ll hear what the government’s doing to protect cleanup workers.
MICHAELS: We learned that one contractor was charging workers for their protective equipment. And that's absolutely against the law; workers should not be charged for training and obviously they should have the right to speak their minds about health and safety concerns.
YOUNG: Also chemical dispersants are a big concern, but scientists say they can’t get samples they need to study them. Plus, a recipe for happy healthy kids – transform an urban playground into a small green oasis.
COX: Before it was a struggle both to get the teachers to get them outside and the children – they love it – they love being in the green.
YOUNG: Bringing nature into the heart of the inner-city. Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick Around!
YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, MA, this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. The oil disaster in the Gulf has brought the biggest environmental response in U.S. history: An armada of 44-hundred vessels and an army of 24-thousand personnel. Those numbers will likely go up as oil continues to make its way east onto the shores of Alabama and Florida. That’s a lot of people working in places that pose a lot of hazards.
And that’s a big concern for our guest David Michaels. Michaels has long been a fierce advocate for worker safety. He now leads the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. That means it’s his job to make sure that workers in the Gulf are protected. Last month Michaels expressed serious concerns about worker safety in a strongly worded memo to BP. He just wrapped up a visit to the Gulf Coast to see if things have improved. David Michaels welcome back to Living on Earth.
MICHAELS: Well thank you so much, I’m pleased to be back on the show.
YOUNG: Now, this your second trip to the Gulf since the spill. What did you see there that gives you reason for concern. What did you see there that gives you reason to think that workers are being protected?
MICHAELS: Well I just came back and I was down at the clean-up areas with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. We saw the workers involved in a number of different clean-up tasks. We have OSHA staff across all the staging areas from Louisiana to Florida and what they’re seeing is that a number of hazards do arise in the clean up areas and when they do arise we immediately raise them with BP and with the Coast Guard, the agency we work most closely with.
YOUNG: Now you wrote a memo, May 25, telling people you weren’t very happy with the way things were going on. Is that right?
MICHAELS: That’s correct. Now this a couple of weeks ago but we saw a number of different serious problems in the clean-up areas. We were concerned about security on the sites, people were walking in and off the sites, we were concerned about protecting people from heat, which is probably the #1 hazard down there, but more importantly we didn’t see the structure of safety authority working in the way we thought was necessary.
YOUNG: Now what do you mean when you use that term “structure of safety?”
MICHAELS: It has to be clear who’s got the authority to make changes. What was going on in the staging areas where workers were working, OSHA inspectors would arrive, we’d see a problem, we’d pull over the BP supervisor and say ok, we see this problem, take care of it, and the BP supervisor would say, “I’ll see what I can do,” and the problem wouldn’t be fixed. And so clearly we were talking to people who didn’t have responsibility to fix the problem. And that was unacceptable to us.
YOUNG: Now according to Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, they’ve had at least 50 complaints from workers which seem to be related to exposure to pollutants from the spill, possibly the oil itself or the chemical dispersants. What are your concerns there?
MICHAELS: That’s correct. What we’re doing with our sister agency, National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health, we are tracking down every one of these cases and trying to learn about them more. There were seven workers taken to the hospital, again a couple weeks ago, in one instance that may be related to a cleaning product that was used.
But we’re not absolutely sure and we need to get to the bottom of it. Anytime there’s a major complaint we certainly track that down. But frankly, right now, we’re as concerned about issues of heat and injury as we are about chemical exposure. The heat is really something. Workers work long days in the sun and we insist they be given shade, very regular work breaks, lots of liquids to drink, because we’ve had a number of people coming down with heat stress, in some cases heat stroke.
YOUNG: Now we’ve heard from some environment and public health advocates there that they’re hearing reports of people not having protective gear. Here’s what Wilma Soubra told us, she’s a respected scientist who does a lot of work in the field down there.
SUBRA: We have actually provided protective gear and respirators through Louisiana Environmental Action Network. And BP has threatened to fire the workers that actually wear the respirators.
YOUNG: What do you make of that?
MICHAELS: Our position is that there are certain jobs where people should have respirators. It’s very clear they should have them when they go out in the boats near the areas where the oil is being burned there’s potential for significant exposures. On the other hand, there are other areas on the beach for example, where people are cleaning up weathered oil it would actually be dangerous for all them to wear respirators.
And in the hot weather respirators take a very, very physical toll on the heart and on the lungs. And we’re quite concerned that if you give people respirators without properly training them, without doing medical examinations, we could be causing some serious health problems.
YOUNG: And another thing we’re hearing from some activists in Louisiana is that there’s an atmosphere of fear among workers about speaking out about potential exposure or lack of protective gear because, now, working for BP on the clean-up is the only game in town, now that fishing has shut down.
MICHAELS: That’s certainly is a huge concern of ours. We’ve heard a number of different complaints, often involving contractors or sub-contractors. For example, we learned that one contractor was charging workers for their protective equipment, and that’s absolutely against the law. Workers should not be charged for training and obviously they should have the right to speak their minds about health and safety concerns and to know to notify us if there is a problem. So we’re telling workers across the area if they have a problem they should bring it up with either the OSHA professional who is visiting the site on a regular basis or they should call us confidentially and we will follow up on every complaint.
YOUNG: How big a concern are the chemical dispersants that are being used so heavily?
MICHAELS: Well they’re certainly a very significant environmental concern. From the worker point of view, we’re out there measuring to see if the workers who are on the sea, to see if they’re exposed to them and for the most part there is very little exposure because people are not near those places where they’re being sprayed. At this point though we haven’t seen evidence that the dispersants are coming onto the shore. But again we’re monitoring for that all the time.
YOUNG: And what’s your overall assessment of this sprawling, changing workplace and its level of safety?
MICHAELS: I think the level of safety at this point in time, I think, is quite good. I think OSHA is working very well with the Coast Guard observing all the activities, ensuring that BP is doing the right thing and their contractors are doing the right thing. But we must remain vigilant. This is a very big job, there are a lot of hazards out there, the hazard could change and we’ve got to work very hard to make sure people are protected.
YOUNG: David Michaels is Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Thank you very much.
MICHAELS: Thank you so much.
YOUNG: Recent air sampling data from the Gulf indicate OSHA still has its work cut out for it. Several samples found hydrocarbons and other potentially toxic chemicals in the air where workers are on large craft dealing with the spill.
The advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, points out that the air sampling that BP is doing does not cover workers on nearly 15-hundred small fishing boats laying down boom and skimming oil. Without that data it’s hard to know what protective gear those workers might need.
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