As Gulf cleanup workers continue to report health problems, a workplace safety expert and a leading Louisiana health official have expressed concern that BP's four-hour training course for responders may not be adequately preparing them to work in contaminated areas.
Workers must complete a federally required safety course before joining operations where they may be exposed to hazardous materials. The program teaches them to recognize risks and use protective equipment, and the hours of training required vary based on workers' level of exposure and on-site responsibilities.
The rule states that post-emergency cleanup workers must undergo 24 hours of training before working in contaminated areas, but a 1990 directive by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration following the Exxon-Valdez disaster sliced this requirement to four hours for oil spill workers conducting lower-risk tasks such as beach cleanup. (Read our post about illnesses among Exxon-Valdez responders.)
Franklin Mirer, a professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said four hours is probably not enough to teach untrained workers to recognize and respond to the risks they are facing. Crude oil and dispersants give off vapors that can include hazardous chemicals such as benzene, toluene and Polychromatic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, or PAHs.
"The question is, can you accomplish the goals of training in four hours, and I don't think you can accomplish what would be needed to be done," said Mirer, a specialist in occupational safety.
Dr. Jimmy Guidry, medical director of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, said that continuing complaints of respiratory problems among cleanup workers have him worried that they are not following proper safety procedures. He said that OSHA has not responded to his requests for more detail about training for cleanup workers and safety conditions, and that news reports showing cleanup sites have only added to his concern. (We've written before about the difficulties of getting data on response workers' health.)
"We're not always seeing the best practices; sometimes they're not wearing protective equipment," Guidry said. "We're not sure if it's because they haven't gotten proper training or they haven't been following the training they've been given."
A spokesman at Deepwater Horizon Unified Command -- a response center involving BP, Transocean, the Coast Guard and numerous federal agencies -- said OSHA is in charge of monitoring workplace safety for the cleanup. The Louisiana health department does not have jurisdiction over workplace policies or personnel offshore in the spill area.
On June 4, the Louisiana health department wrote a letter to OSHA calling on the agency to investigate BP's health practices at cleanup sites. The letter urged OSHA to provide the health department with an official report that included data on worker complaints, air sampling results and a "comprehensive review of training protocols for workers."
"We haven't had any response from OSHA in terms of the materials we've requested," Guidry said.
BP spokesman Toby Odone said the safety trainings were geared to prepare workers for the tasks they will perform, and that OSHA had approved the course before it started.
"It was a course and content and time that was reviewed and approved by OSHA," he said.
We at ProPublica have been trying to speak with OSHA about the training course and its standards for preparing workers who will deal with spilled crude, but haven't yet received an answer. We'll update you when we hear more.