06/07/2010 06:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

OSHA Says Workers Don't Need Protection In Gulf Spill

This is infuriating to read, given the news reports about workers feeling ill in the cleanup of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. There are more stories like these coming out about workers getting ill and about BP not providing them protective wear and respirators.

Apparently OSHA says that these workers don't need respirators in the cleanup of the oil spill:

David Michaels, assistant secretary for the Department of Labor's OSHA, said in an interview Thursday that based on test results so far, cleanup workers are receiving "minimal" exposure to airborne toxins. OSHA will require that BP provide certain protective clothing, but not respirators.

For more on this developing situation, please read what environmental advocates such as Albert Huang and others have to say about the need for workers to have protection from respiratory problems in dealing with potentially dangerous inhalants.

Albert Huang, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently appeared on Democracy Now, and made a compelling case for the need of respirators for these workers:

ALBERT HUANG: Well, under the -- the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has a number of regulations in place for worker safety, and they have released, with the National Institute for Environmental Health, a number of fact sheets saying that workers need to protect themselves. And in these fact sheets, they said you need to wear boots, you need to wear gloves, overalls, and life vests so people don't drown. And recently we saw in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, and there's been photos all over the internet and Facebook, as well, showing workers in street clothes doing cleanup. So that's our first concern.

The second concern is that there are also regulations that OSHA has for wearing respirators. It's the Respiratory Protection Standards in OSHA, and it says that if you're in a workplace that -- where there are inhaled -- possible inhaled health risks, then the employer needs to provide a respiratory program, a plan, of how you're going to protect your workers, which may include providing respirators. We suspect that BP does not have a plan. And one of the reasons why they're not allowing workers to wear these respirators is because they don't have a plan. And if they were to allow people to wear respirators without a plan, that would reveal they're actually in violation of OSHA standards. So that's one possibility right there. The second one, of course, is that, you know, if you don't act like there's a problem, there is no problem publicly. And the fact that we saw this after Katrina in New Orleans, where there was an issue with air quality, and many health experts were recommending wearing respirators. And the image of people walking around in respirators, I think, was very daunting for a lot of government regulators, that, you know, there was a real problem. So that might be another thing that's going on, too.

But clearly there are OSHA requirements that say that in a workplace, to protect our workers, if there are inhaled risks, where in this case there surely are. It's been very well studied that, you know, oil or petroleum products have lots of constituents, volatile organic compounds, which include benzene, which are strongly linked to leukemia and other cancer-causing diseases -- other cancer-causing chemicals. The National Academy of Science released a study saying that 40 percent of oil, once it hits the air, evaporates. And that's what we're concerned about. When we were down in Robert, Louisiana, we met with Central Command, and we raised the issue of, you know, how much oil is being spilled. We need to know this. And one of the responses was that, "Well, 40 percent of it evaporates into the air anyways." Well, that's exactly what we're concerned about, is, of that oil evaporating into the air, there's these volatile organic compounds, there's hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs and leads to like hardness in breathing, irritation of the eyes, and then the benzene itself, which can--like I said, has cancer-causing effects, can lead to burning of the eyes, the nose, nose bleeding, coughing. I mean, these are all of the symptoms that we hear a lot of people reporting on the ground."

And one of these reports comes straight from a fisherman's wife, and you have to read her story to understand why these workers need full protection, including respirators, not just protective gear:

When David Arnesen reported that the other men were so sick they were cutting their shrimping trips short and heading home, his wife knew something strange was happening.
Shrimpers work through illness, she says, because a trip cut short can cost a shrimper thousands of dollars. She says the men had all the same symptoms at the same time -- vomiting, dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath. Could it be a coincidence?

"I don't believe in coincidence. It would be one thing if one of them got sick. It would maybe be OK if two got sick," she says. "When everyone's getting sick all at the same time, that's not coincidence."


The night her husband became ill, Arnesen says, she tried to get him to come home like the other shrimpers, but he refused. He stayed out fishing from 6 p.m. until 9 a.m. the next morning, and came home so sick he collapsed into his recliner without eating dinner or saying hello to her or the children. "It's a nasty cough. I literally woke him up over and over again," she says. "It didn't sound like he was getting enough air.

At first, David refused to see a doctor, but after three weeks of coughing and feeling weak, he agreed to go. His wife says he was diagnosed with respiratory problems and prescribed medicines, including an antibiotic and cough medicines.

Data straight from Deepwater Horizon, the website set up by the federal government and BP, shows that there are low levels of toxins such as butoxyethanol in the air near these workers. Butoxyethanol is considered to be toxic by the Environmental Protection Agency. Here's more on this data:

Little-noticed data posted on BP's website and the Deepwater Horizon site show that 32 air samples taken near workers have indicated the presence of butoxyethanol, a component listed as present in an oil spill dispersant used by BP, known as Corexit. The Environmental Protection Agency considers it toxic.

The BP document said the data demonstrates "that there are no significant exposures occurring." OSHA is monitoring the data and has said the workers haven't been exposed to harmful levels.

While experts agree that the level of exposure is lower than federal safety standards, they say that what little data that has been released provides more questions than answers.

"It's cause for concern, both for workers who are on the vessels as well as near shore," said Joseph T. Hughes Jr. , the director of the worker education-training program for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. "It's just an indication that we should be cautious in terms of exposure during cleanup."

Tom Philpott at has a good run-down of 2-butoxyethanol as a toxic component of the dispersant Corexit 9527, citing data from the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS):

Both data sheets include the warning "human health hazards: acute." The MSDS for Corexit 9527A states that "excessive exposure may cause central nervous system effects, nausea, vomiting, anesthetic or narcotic effects," and "repeated or excessive exposure to butoxyethanol [an active ingredient] may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver."

It adds: "Prolonged and/or repeated exposure through inhalation or extensive skin contact with EGBE [butoxyethanol] may result in damage to the blood and kidneys."

And Tom points out that the data sheets don't give out the exact make-up of the chemicals in the dispersants since that information is "proprietary" which means the government also doesn't have access to that information.

Frustratingly, the sheets don't give exact information about how much of the substances are in the dispersants; instead they give ranges as a percentage of weight. For example, Corexit 9500 can be composed of anywhere from 10 to 30 percent petroleum distillates, while 2-Butoxyethanol makes up anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of 9527.

We would do very well to remember the past of what happened to the workers in the Exxon-Valdez oil spill:

Court records showed more than 6,700 workers involved in the Exxon Valdez clean up suffered respiratory problems which the company attributed to a viral illness, not chemical poisoning.

Dennis Mestas represented the only known worker to successfully settle with Exxon over health issues. According to the terms of that confidential settlement, Exxon did not admit fault.

His client, Gary Stubblefield, spent four months lifting workers in a crane for 18 hours a day as they sprayed the oil-slicked beaches with hot water, which created an oily mist. Even though he had to wipe clean his windshield twice a day, Stubblefield said it never occurred to him that the mixture might be harming his lungs.

Within weeks, he and others, who wore little to no protective gear, were coughing and experiencing other symptoms that were eventually nicknamed Valdez crud. Now 60, Stubblefield cannot get through a short conversation without coughing and gasping for breath like a drowning man.
He sometimes needs the help of a breathing machine and inhalers, and has to be careful not to choke when he drinks and eats.

We also should ask, why not be on the safe side and provide these workers with respirators instead of being sorry about it later? It can't hurt to provide these workers respirators as a part of their protective clothing gear. I disagree with the OSHA ruling on this situation, as do other environmental advocates. The minimum requirements under law should not be applied to this situation, but the maximum requirements should be applied in full.