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Coast Guard Photos Show Spill Workers Without Protective Gear

by Sasha Chavkin, ProPublica

There's something missing in the Coast Guard's latest PR photos of oil spill cleanup workers: protective gear.

No less than three items required for beach cleaning operations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- coveralls, rubber boots, and in one case, gloves -- are absent in pictures of workers cleaning potentially oiled debris from beaches in Galveston, Texas on Sunday.

The photos, first noted by a Facebook group that advocates health protections for cleanup workers, were taken by a Coast Guard Petty Officer and posted to the agency's Visual Information Gallery. A caption describes the workers as "contractors working to clean the beaches in Galveston."

Cindy Coe, the southeast regional director for OSHA, said that the Personal Protective Equipment shown in one of the photographs was inadequate and that she had instructed her staff to address the problem.

"Those two individuals didn't have the right PPE, so we'll get that corrected," Coe said. "They are tracking down the contractors of those individuals."

Coe said that heat stress concerns had led OSHA to accept long pants and T-Shirts for beach cleanup workers instead of the coveralls described in agency guidelines, but that the lack of gloves and proper footwear was unacceptable.

Frank Hearl, the Chief of Staff for the government's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said that gloves, boots and protective clothing were all necessary for working with potentially oil-coated materials. Hearl hadn't seen the photos and didn't want to comment on them specifically, but said generally that while there's a trade-off between keeping workers cool enough and certain types of protective equipment, there other ways of managing heat stress, such as providing rest breaks to workers and insuring adequate hydration.

"There's a tension between the two things, and you have to deal with both," Hearl said.

We contacted the Coast Guard this morning to ask about the photos and find out which contractor was in charge of the site, but haven't yet gotten a response. We'll let you know when we hear more.

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