Experts: BP's Plan to Protect Spill Workers Inadequate

Published on
by
McClatchy Newspapers

Experts: BP's Plan to Protect Spill Workers Inadequate

by
Marisa Taylor

Man works to remove oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill off his hands. BP's plan to protect workers fighting the massive oil spill in the Gulf, which the Coast Guard approved on May 25, exposes them to higher levels of toxic chemicals than generally accepted practices permit. (SOURCE: AP/Eric Gay)

WASHINGTON — BP's plan to protect workers fighting the massive oil
spill in the Gulf, which the Coast Guard approved on May 25, exposes
them to higher levels of toxic chemicals than generally accepted
practices permit.

Moreover, BP isn't required to give workers respirators, to evacuate
them from danger zones, or to take other precautions until conditions
are more dangerous. The looser standards are due in part to federal
regulations that don't specify safety thresholds for volatile organic
compounds, or VOCs — the principal toxins that threaten the health of
spill response workers, experts said.

BP's plan also fails to address the use of more than 1 million gallons of dispersants so far in the cleanup.

"This
plan is not workable and offers a false sense of security," said Eileen
Senn, a former state and federal health and safety official for more
than 40 years. "It gives the impression that you can write a procedure
to dodge chemical bullets that are coming at you constantly."

Critics are questioning the quality of the company's plan as a growing number of oil spill workers are becoming sick.

The
illnesses have sparked a debate about whether the Obama administration
should be pushing BP to take more stringent precautions or even wrest
control of the company's health and safety response.

More than
24,400 people are working on the response to the spill. Of the 50
workers who have reported becoming ill in Louisiana, most of their
symptoms cleared up quickly, but a majority of the workers think the
dispersants were to blame.

"Overall, BP's plan is not
responsive to the health complaints we're hearing about," said Franklin
Mirer, a toxicologist and Hunter College professor.

The Coast
Guard didn't respond to repeated requests for comment. As a result,
it's unclear what role the Coast Guard had in independently evaluating
BP's plan or in assessing the adequacy of the safety standards.

On
Wednesday, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's
point man on the oil spill, said he had "a lot of concerns about worker
safety" given the hot weather and concerns about VOCs.

He said
firefighting vessels have been dispatched to the area to spray a "water
blanket" on the oil to prevent chemical vapors from rising.

The
Occupational Safety and Health Administration and BP are monitoring the
air offshore and so far haven't found levels of toxic chemicals that
exceed federal standards.

The BP plan, known as the Offshore Air
Monitoring Plan for Source Control, allows workers to stay in an area
when vapors are at a level that's four times higher than accepted
practice to prevent an explosion.

The Marine Spill Response
Corp., an oil and gas industry organization, recommended lower levels
in the mid-1990s, according to a document posted on OSHA's website.
Even the accepted level "is a very high exposure from a health point of
view," Mirer said. "At that point, workers should be leaving the site,"
he said, rather than just monitoring the situation as the plan requires.

However,
Ray Viator, a BP spokesman, called the company's plan "aggressive" in
its monitoring of toxins in the air and protecting workers. The plan,
he said, applies to workers who are burning off the oil, applying the
dispersant, drilling the relief wells and performing other operations
near the source of spill. The company installed charcoal ventilation
systems in the crew quarters and made sure respirators are on hand in
the boats directly in the spill area although so far the equipment
haven't been used.

"It's a complex plan for a complex
situation," he said. "It's being managed by professionals who have
reviewed the plan and who are making sure it's being implemented
correctly. It involves graduated responses and we're prepared to
accelerate it if the situation arises. So far, it hasn't arisen."

However,
Mirer, the toxicologist, said he was surprised by the levels the plan
permits and wondered whether it reflected what workers could be exposed
to as the cleanup continues.

"The question is: Do they
anticipate or have any evidence that a concentration like this exists,
or are they just writing this down?" Mirer asked.

Experts also
said that the plan permits levels of VOCs in living quarters that are
too high and don't take into account that the fact many workers are
working more than eight hours a day and therefore could be exposed to
potentially higher cumulative levels of toxins.

Overall, the
plan is too complex and requires various responses that seem difficult
to carry out, said several experts who reviewed the plan at McClatchy's
request.

"This protocol seems to be written in a way that allows
them to continue to work when conditions are such that, in any other
setting, you'd pull your workers or you'd put them in better
protection," said Mark Catlin, a worker safety advocate and expert who
worked on the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska.

Not all experts were as critical although they all had similar concerns about the permitted levels of explosive vapors.

Bruce
Lippy, a worker health and safety consultant who helped monitor worker
exposure at the World Trade Center site, where a number of rescue
workers suffered permanent lung damage after the 9/11 attacks, said the
plan was adequate and praised BP for calling for more stringent testing
of respirators.

"There are some strengths to the plan," he said. "They've covered most of the bases."

Officials with OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health also saw the plan, according to BP.

However,
earlier this week, David Michaels, the head of OSHA, acknowledged that
his agency's reach applied only as far as three miles off shore, which
meant that most of the fishermen helping with the near-shore cleanup
are covered by the agency's jurisdiction. Not so for workers close to
the source of the spill, he said.

Administration officials have
said that they're concerned about possible respiratory effects,
especially given there are few studies on the illnesses that oil spill
workers experience.

Health officials are worried about requiring
respirators prematurely because of the heat conditions that many
workers are exposed to. Already, many workers have succumbed to
heat-related illnesses, and respirators could make symptoms worse.

Nonetheless, staff researchers for NIOSH wear respirators when monitoring the air on vessels.

In
an interview with McClatchy, Dr. John Howard, who heads NIOSH, called
it a "precaution" but added, "We don't have a lot of data here."

His agency is still investigating the cause of the illness of seven workers who were hospitalized.

A
preliminary investigation by BP determined that seven workers might not
have been properly instructed on the use of a cleaning concentrate. Yet
the day after BP reached this conclusion, BP's chief executive, Tony
Hayward, claimed that the illnesses might be unrelated to the spill and
instead could be symptoms of food poisoning.

"We're trying to do
our own independent thing here and be able to corroborate," Howard said
in an interview. "BP, like many corporations, sometimes does have some
credibility issues."

Howard and Michaels faced questions about
respirators and other precautions being used during the oil spill at
this week's meeting of a health and safety advisory committee.

Denise
Pouget, an assistant Fire-EMS chief for the city of Alexandria, Va.,
questioned whether OSHA has allowed for "reduced" training standards of
cleanup workers. OSHA has allowed BP to train most workers in handling
hazardous materials for four or eight hours — fewer hours than required
in other disaster incidents.

"I can't help but think this is like a large hazardous materials incident," she said.

"Absolutely, respiratory protections and air monitoring would be the number one priority."

In
many cases, she noted, depending on the location of the emergency
worker, she would order her workers to wear hazardous material suits.

Michaels responded that the standards had been "modified", not lowered, based on experience with previous disasters.

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