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Report: Federal Disaster Response Plans Shortchange Worker Safety

In the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, a series of health complaints among cleanup workers led to widespread concerns about the adequacy of the safety training, protective equipment and chemical exposure monitoring provided by the government and BP. A new report by the Center for Progressive Reform contends that many of these problems stemmed from insufficient attention to worker safety in the government’s disaster response plans.

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Contractors work to clean the beaches in Galveston without all of the required safety gear. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Prentice Danner)

In the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, a series of health complaints among cleanup workers led to widespread concerns about the adequacy of the safety training, protective equipment and chemical exposure monitoring provided by the government and BP.

Today, a new report by the Center for Progressive Reform contends that many of these problems stemmed from insufficient attention to worker safety in the government’s disaster response plans. The report says that these programs, called the National and Regional Contingency Plans, shortchange the role of worker protection agencies in planning for an oil spill response, leaving no mechanism for enforcing workplace safety.

“These documents, beginning at the national level, consistently pass responsibility for ensuring worker safety down the line to the next entity that has a duty to participate in planning process,” the report states. “But as they pass the buck, they never establish mechanisms for ensuring accountability at the next level for worker safety and health.”

The center describes itself as a pro-bono network of scholars that advocates “thoughtful government action” to protect the environment, safety and health. It is funded primarily by foundations, including the Deer Creek Foundation, Public Welfare Foundation and Bauman Foundation.

While the report gives high grades to the worker safety agencies – the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health – for improving worker training and health monitoring once they got involved in the Gulf spill response, it maintains that they often were forced to react to decisions that were made without their involvement.

We called Frank Mirer, the professor at Hunter College who initially raised concerns about the safety training, and he agreed with the report’s recommendation OSHA and NIOSH should have a greater role in contingency planning in order to prevent key worker safety decisions from being made on the fly.

“The most important thing is to learn from what happened and incorporate the protections that were eventually implemented into planning,” Mirer said. “Five minutes before the party isn’t the time to learn to dance.”

As we reported, BP’s initial safety trainings for workers in offshore vessels were described as inadequate by experts, and OSHA later agreed that they were insufficient. OSHA eventually prompted BP to provide a longer and more comprehensive course, but this course did not start until months after cleanup operations were underway.

We’ve asked for reactions from OSHA and the Coast Guard, a leading agency in implementing federal oil spill response plans, but haven’t yet gotten a response. We’ll update you when we hear more.

Paul R. Cooper

Sep. 14, 2010, 8:43 p.m.

It would be comforting to hear the the government has planned and funded disaster relief and rebuilding programs for all possible major disasters.  We have impression that disaster relief (Katrina, Gulf Oil spill, etc) was ad hoc, improvised and late when common sense tells that hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, fire, and explosions of various kinds are sure going to happen and we should be prepared.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
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Gulf Oil Spill

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf has had untold health, economic and environmental effects.

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