THE BLOG
06/16/2010 11:30 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

OSHA Limits Don't Protect Gulf Coast Workers

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BP is claiming that because the air concentrations of carcinogens such as benzene are below OSHA limits, the workers involved in cleaning up the Gulf oil spill are not at risk of health effects. BP is dismissing the fact that its own data have shown levels of hydrocarbons above BP's 'action level', and have shown levels of benzene and 2-butoxyethanol (the dispersant chemical) above the Recommended Exposure Limit set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). See my prior blog for more details on this. The OSHA standards are the fig leaf that they are using to pretend that workers are safe.

As someone who works in the field of occupational medicine, I'm familiar with the "OSHA says it's safe" argument. I also know that it's dead wrong.  

Many serious workplace hazards are not regulated at all by OSHA. For those that are, the regulations are both out-of-date and weak. Most notably for the situation in the Gulf, OSHA has failed to update permissible exposure limits (PELs) for toxic chemicals. The levels that are in place were largely adopted wholesale by OSHA in 1971. Most of these limits were set by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) in the 1950's and 1960’s based on the information available at the time. In 1989, OSHA tried to update these limits, by lowering 212 of OSHA's existing PELs for toxic substances and setting PELs for 164 toxic substances which had been previously unregulated. The regulation was overturned by the courts because the agency failed to make detailed and time-consuming risk and feasibility determinations for each chemical. So we're still stuck with outdated standards that don't reflect modern science, and don't protect worker health. See the table below for a list of when the OSHA standards were set for some of the oil spill chemicals.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report on OSHA that concluded: “the rulemaking requirements that have been placed on OSHA and other agencies over the years are clearly voluminous and require a wide range of procedural, consultative, and analytical actions on the part of the agencies... For example, last year, the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health noted that it takes OSHA an average of 10 years to develop and promulgate a health or safety standard.”

For the main chemicals that workers are breathing in the Gulf, the OSHA standards were set in the 1970's and 80's, reflecting science from the 1960's and 70's. These aren't safety regulations, they're fossils.

NIOSH (which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) does update their safety limits for workers, which is partly why the NIOSH standards are much more health-protective. For example, the NIOSH level for benzene is 1/10th of the OSHA limit. But the NIOSH standards are not legally enforceable. So workers are caught in a Catch-22, where neither NIOSH nor OSHA are really able to protect them. Even NIOSH levels wouldn't really protect the Gulf workers, because these men aren't working traditional 9-5 work days, they're out there 24x7 for weeks at a time.

The Gulf workers are getting hit hard: The fishermen have no choice but to take these jobs because the BP spill killed their livelihood. They are getting sent out there with minimal training and protective equipment, and they are working crazy long hours. It adds insult to injury to pretend that the antiquated OSHA standards will protect these workers. They deserve better.

OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) For Chemicals in Oil and Dispersants
ChemicalOSHA PEL (PPM)Year OSHA PEL Established
Benzene11987
Ethylbenzene 1001974
Toluene2001989
Naphthalene 101995
2-butoxyethanol 501974