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As BP Works Through Backlog, Cleanup Worker Illness Stats Triple Since Prior Report

Following questions about its data, the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command is now reporting more than 300 cases of illness among cleanup crews working on the Gulf oil spill, an increase from 86 cases in a report a week earlier. A BP employee speaking for the response team said the increase was due partly to a backlog in the recording of incidents.

Following criticism and questions about its illness data, Deepwater Horizon Unified Command--a response center involving BP, Transocean, Halliburton, the Coast Guard and multiple federal agencies--appears to have tweaked its recording of worker illnesses in the Gulf.

In doing so, its illness statistics have more than tripled from the previous report, which was released by BP two weeks ago. According to new data, spanning April 22 to June 17, 307 Gulf cleanup workers reported illness, and most received first aid and no medical treatment. There have been 424 reports of injuries.

BP and Unified Command's previous accounting of illnesses, from April 22 to June 10, only recorded 86 illnesses.

According to the latest report, 38 illnesses received medical treatment. Many of these reports made mention of familiar symptoms: vomiting, nausea, headache, stomach pains, chest pains, dizziness, possible dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Jonathan Wengel, a safety officer at Unified Command who is employed by BP, said the increase was due to an increase in workers as well as a backlog in the recording of incidents.

"We want to make sure people are cared for," Wengel said. "Sometimes there's delay in paperwork-making and the reporting system."

As we've been reporting, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals has also been keeping tabs on the situation, and this week released new data showing a sustained rise in worker illnesses and what appears to be a leveling of reports from the general population.

According to Louisiana, 143 illnesses believed to be related to exposure to pollutants from the Gulf spill have been recorded--108 from workers and 35 from the general population. The report showed an increase in the number of workers who said they were exposed to liquid oil, odor and fumes, dispersant, and heat, but the number of health complaints from the general population remained unchanged from last week's report.

OSHA, the federal agency whose role is to oversee worker health, says on its website that "OSHA is aware that reports of health symptoms experienced by some workers have raised concern about short and long-term health effects of the oil products and dispersants," and that the agency is currently in "intensive discussions" and is "considering the need for respiratory protection."

As we've reported, both safety training for Gulf cleanup workers as well as OSHA's permissible exposure levels (often cited by BP and federal agencies to indicate working conditions are safe) may provide inadequate protection for Gulf workers.

Last week, OSHA chief David Michaels, in interviews with both ProPublica and C-SPAN's Washington Journal, acknowledged the inadequacy of training as well as the agency's permissible exposure levels, or PELs.

"No one should be using a PEL to make a statement about safety or lack of safety of an exposure," Michaels told me. "In the Gulf and elsewhere, we're not relying on the PELs in terms of protecting workers. Exposures below the PEL are still dangerous."

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, when asked in a press briefing on Tuesday about Michaels' warnings about chemical exposure levels, said he "was not aware" of the concerns and would release a statement later in the day. That statement has not yet been released, but we'll update when it is.

Michaels told me that OSHA had been looking into updating the permissible exposure levels even before the Gulf disaster, but because the standards must be updated one chemical at a time, the process is challenging.

"When we want to update standards we have to go through a long and cumbersome process," Michaels said. "That's obviously not a good way to protect workers."

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