DENVER — Labor Secretary Hilda Solis on Friday lambasted BP PLC and coal mining company Massey Energy for their recent disasters, saying they need to enact better safety measures and not make a profit "at the expense of killing" their employees.
"We are not saying go out of business. Do your job better. Make an investment in your employees. We want you to make a profit but not at the expense of killing your employees," Solis said at a conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
She said workers cleaning up BP's oil spill on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico include minorities who often don't have the interpretation services they need to understand how to handle contaminants.
Solis said the workers, some of whom she visited recently, are a "vulnerable population" that needs to be protected and that her office is directing BP to give them proper training in their spoken languages.
"What I heard overwhelmingly was that there were no interpreters that could provide them with information on how they could go about understanding what safety measures that OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) is requiring them to take so they could be certified to be part of the cleanup," Solis said.
She said the workers are often minorities, including African-Americans, Asians, Mexicans and Central Americans who work in 109-degree weather while wearing plastic coveralls.
"I don't want to get into a point-counterpoint with the labor secretary," said John Curry, a BP spokesman. "We are all saddened by the situation and we're trying to do everything we can to learn from the situation so we can improve and so we can be as safe as possible."
Curry said BP has translators from various languages at offices where people affected by the spill can make compensation claims. He said translators for other languages, including Vietnamese, have been brought in for hazardous materials training.
Officials at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corp., a nonprofit set up in eastern New Orleans to help that area's Vietnamese community recover from Hurricane Katrina, say language barriers have been a problem as this latest crisis develops. The corporation has at times brought in interpreters for fishermen attending classes on how to clean up the oil. It also is seeking bilingual psychologists and psychiatrists who can counsel Vietnamese suffering from mental health problems since the spill.
Eleven workers were killed when BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20 and started pouring crude oil into the Gulf. An explosion 15 days earlier at a Massey Energy Co. mine in West Virginia killed 29 men.
"Massey has not put profits over safety and will not," said Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater, responding to Solis' remarks. "Safety is our first priority. Massey constantly works to improve the safety of coal miners and willingly invests millions of dollars in doing so."
Associated Press Writer Tim Huber contributed to this report from Charleston, W.Va.