Journalism in the Public Interest

Coast Guard Photos Show Spill Workers Without Protective Gear

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires oil cleanup workers to wear gloves, rubber boots and other safety equipment, but Coast Guard pictures from Texas show the rules aren’t always followed.  OSHA says it is addressing the problem.


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

There's something missing in the Coast Guard's latest PR photos of oil spill cleanup workers: protective gear.

No fewer than three items required for beach cleaning operations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- coveralls, rubber boots and, in one case, gloves -- are absent in pictures of workers cleaning potentially oiled debris from beaches in Galveston, Texas, on Sunday.

The photos, first noted by a Facebook group that advocates health protections for cleanup workers, were taken by a Coast Guard petty officer and posted to the agency's Visual Information Gallery. A caption describes the workers as "contractors working to clean the beaches in Galveston."

Cindy Coe, the southeast regional director for OSHA, said that the protective equipment shown in one of the photographs was inadequate and that she had instructed her staff to address the problem.

"We'll get that corrected," Coe said. "They are tracking down the contractors of those individuals."

Coe said that concerns about heat stress had led OSHA to accept long pants and T-shirts for beach cleanup workers instead of the coveralls described in agency guidelines, but that the lack of gloves and proper footwear was unacceptable.

Frank Hearl, the chief of staff for the government's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said that gloves, boots and protective clothing were all necessary for working with potentially oil-coated materials. Hearl said he hadn't seen the photos and didn't want to comment on them specifically, but said generally that while there's a trade-off between protective equipment and keeping workers cool enough, there are other ways of managing heat stress, such as providing rest breaks to workers and ensuring adequate hydration.

"There's a tension between the two things, and you have to deal with both," Hearl said.

We contacted the Coast Guard this morning to ask about the photos and find out which contractor was in charge of the site, but haven't yet gotten a response. We'll let you know when we hear more.

Is it possible that we are stretching even this great catastrophe a bit too far in looking for the human element? Or is this just a lunge for local sources?
Also missing in the photo is a source of hydration, already alluded to by the human source provided, but this in no way indicates that no such hydration exists, or is unprovided.
I would rather know who is shoveling the oil into bags on this Texas beach during the summer, and why this contract work is better than another paying alternative. It would be very sad to see that an environmental catastrophe is a better source of income than other forms of local manual labor.
I have never shoveled oil off a hot beach, but if I had to, I would also cast off my gloves in looking to pick a bigger fight.

Carl, Germany

Here is an interesting article about health risks and oil exposure:

“For the workers involved in the cleanup there are risks associated with inhalation of volatile organic compounds from oil like benzene. Lower respiratory tract problems are to be expected. There are also concerns for neurological effects on children and developing foetuses. Researchers have also reported a link between exposure to oil spills and DNA damage.

Researchers from the University of A Coruna in Spain have studied workers who dealt with the oil spill resulting when the tanker Prestige leaked thousands of litres of oil into the Spanish and French coasts in 2002. It was found that workers who were exposed to oil for just five days did show DNA damage but that the damage repaired itself. In workers exposed for months however the DNA damage became fixed.

This does not mean that those workers exposed to the oil for long periods will develop cancer but they are at higher risk, just as are people who smoke or live in highly polluted cities. It also means that health authorities need to monitor the health of the population in this area since the scale of environmental event here means that we are in uncharted water.”

Obviously protective clothing and/or respirators should be used and any worker, for whom ever, be they contractor, day laborer or full-time is to be protected.

Like heat suffered by the fire-fighter it seems these workers should be rotated in and out.

Why don’t they rotate the clean-up crews?

Mr. Reasonable

July 14, 2010, 9:52 a.m.

What is the hazard? There are crews involved in beach cleanup only assigned to pick up debris on beaches where the weathered oil have not arrived yet. Even if they were picking up potentially oil-coated material, the employee using the shovel will not become in contact with oil. The employee holdng the bag has the potential of touching the oil or being punctured by a sharp object. Both employees have work boots which is adequate foot protection. OSHA should be able to show that exposure or potential exposure to a hazardous condition exists prior to say that “PPE is inadequate”.

Patricia Gillenwater

July 14, 2010, 4:07 p.m.

Mr. Reasonable, Many reports have already been made public that these workers have suffered health concerns.

But this information is not new! From Day One media showed photos and video of cleanup crews wearing gloves, boots and white protective coats but not face masks. Potentially canginogenic particulate matter is aerosolized when tar balls are disturbed (shoveled into bags, stepped on, tidal ebb and flow). Furthermore, the congealed crude oil has been exposed to the elements thus accelerating the process of decomposition and the release toxic chemical components into the air. During the Exxon Valdez cleanup, failure to wear face masks was correlated with the increase in lung and breathing complaints. Again we fail to learn our history lessons.

No, there is nothing new about this story. My initial disappointment of reading this had to do with the attempt of making a big case of small matters amongst a much larger, unsolved problem.
“A worker discards the gloves given to him because it is hot.” A caption of a photo, maybe, but not really news, and not new.
If there was some kind of trend, if gloves were not supplied to the workers, using the evidence of more than one photo, there might be a story here.
Though, a reasonable story might tell of the oil that is still found on Alaska beaches when one simply turns a rock. Though, what is still occurring daily is much larger than that.

Mr. Reasonable

July 20, 2010, 7:22 a.m.

Patricia, many reports have been made, but none of them are legitimate. If a worker experienced a health condition it is not necessary related to the oil. Most workers are trying to blame the oil to get a benefit out of it. How many of those oil related health cases have been diagnosed and certified by a Doctor? OSHA is doing air sampling and monitoring on a daily basis and nothing hazardous requiring face masks has been found.

Mr. Reasonable (as well as others),

To some degree what you folks have said has validity.

I found out that workers are required to take a 20 minute break each hour. This alone should tell us that they believe the oil clean-up has a dangerous component.

Yes there are people who can find an opportunity in a disaster.

Yesterday I was listening to the gent that BP and the Obama Administration had chosen to take control of the funds to be payed to claimants. He reminded me of a type who was sent in to get a company closed down. This tells me that BP with the go ahead of Obama will shut down the claims process.

Mr. Reasonable

July 21, 2010, 11:59 a.m.


Breaks are taken according to the heat index of the location to prevent heat stress incidents (something very common) which is part of their heat stress program. Their heat stress program is based on NIOSH heat stress technical data and heat stress procedures used by the U.S. Coast Guard. Workers go by a chart that stipulates the recommended work/rest times based on type of work (Light, Medium, Heavy) and the heat index. Workers are rotated to avoid disruption of the cleaning efforts while some workers are taking breaks.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

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