BP cleanup workers

Cleanup Workers, Grand Isle, LA (Michael Whitney/Firedoglake)

On Thursday Reps. James Oberstar and Jerry Nadler wrote to the EPA and Department of Labor urging the agencies to ensure cleanup workers for the BP oil disaster have access to “proper personal protection equipment,” as well as the cooperation of the agencies to “federal laws governing worker safety and respiratory protection.”

The letter from the two senior members of Congress outlined reports from fishermen and other workers who reported illnesses, and relied on a May 25 letter from OSHA Administrator David Michaels to Admiral Thad Allen, the man in charge of the federal response to the BP oil disaster. (You can find both letters at the bottom of this post.)

Nadler and Oberstar wrote of Michaels’ letter:

David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, raised concerns in a memo to Admiral Thad Allen about BP’s ability or willingness to protect its workers.  Mr. Michaels’ wrote, “The organizational systems that BP has in place, particularly those related to worker safety and health training, protective equipment, and site monitoring, are not adequate for the current situation or the projected increase in clean-up operations.” Mr. Michaels also wrote, “I want to stress that these are not isolated problems. They appear to be indicative of a general systematic failure on BP’s part, to ensure the safety and health of those responding to this disaster.”

Those are some strong words from OSHA to the government’s leading man in this disaster. It’s clear why Reps. Nadler and Oberstar would press EPA and DOL on worker safety, and use Michaels’ letter to do so.

So why, just hours after the Congressmen sent their letter, did OSHA Administrator Michaels do a full 180 on BP’s commitment to worker safety?

On this blog, Dr. Kirk Murphy noted that as of Friday, Michaels will not require workers to use respirators – an OSHA decision eerily similar to one the agency made for 9/11 cleanup workers, a corollary that was referenced by Reps. Oberstar and Nadler, the latter of whose district included Ground Zero.

The Wall Street Journal, of all places, spoke with Michaels. Here’s some of what he said in his newfound appreciation of BP’s commitment to worker safety.

David Michaels, assistant secretary for the Department of Labor’s OSHA, said in an interview Thursday that based on test results so far, cleanup workers are receiving “minimal” exposure to airborne toxins. OSHA will require that BP provide certain protective clothing, but not respirators.

Mr. Michaels said he remains worried about heat illnesses, given the high temperatures, long hours and resulting fatigue. He also is concerned about injuries “because there are many hazards out there” such as bites from wildlife, wet and slippery or uneven surfaces, boats and use of heavy equipment.

Mr. Allen helped to communicate the concerns to BP, which has since addressed “many” of them, Mr. Michaels said Thursday.

In recent days, OSHA has been working more closely with BP and continues to monitor working conditions daily with the help of about 20 agency staffers across the Gulf, Mr. Michaels said.

“When we see concerns, we report them to the Coast Guard and to BP. BP is responsible for abating the hazards,” he said.

Mr. Michaels said Thursday that the improvements had prevented any need for enforcement action and OSHA is focusing on helping BP comply with existing regulations.

Quite frankly, it sounds like OSHA has been co-opted into the labyrinth of BP cleanup operations. I don’t understand how in 10 days a company can go from “general systemic failure” to near full-compliance with OSHA regulations, completely erasing the need for OSHA to even consider “any need for enforcement action.”

Louisiana officials aren’t satisfied. The state’s health and environment officials requested OSHA continue to press BP for adequate safety measures to protect cleanup workers:

Health and Hospitals Secretary Alan Levine and Environmental Quality Secretary Peggy Hatch say that daily reports of injuries and illness have them worried that workers don’t get proper protection. They asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Friday to investigate.

The secretaries say BP may bring 3,000 more cleanup workers to Louisiana, and the agencies want to ensure that all get the training, protective equipment and supplies they need.

The Department of Labor also needs to be vigilant about other aspects of BP’s treatment of workers. Fishermen and others hired by BP for cleanup work say that BP hasn’t paid them on time, or even called them to work. Multiple workers also report that BP threatens to fire anyone who brings their own personal protection equipment, like respirators.

More needs to be done to protect the workers working for BP to clean up its oil disaster. At the very least, workers should be free to use their own respirators, even if OSHA won’t require BP to provide them. If the government doesn’t step up and do all it can, now, to protect these workers, we’ll deal with lifelong illnesses for thousands of people.

Oberstar-Nadler Letter to EPA, OSHA

OSHA Letter to Admiral Allen about BP’s Lack of Worker Safety