man with respiratorThe government command for the BP oil disaster announced last night its “interim guidance” for recovery worker health and safety, including the (limited) use of respirators. The report was actually released by OSHA and NIOSH, the CDC’s workplace safety group, almost one week ago.

More than 28,000 people signed Firedoglake’s petition to BP, OSHA, and Incident Commander Thad Allen in the last two weeks demanding BP recovery workers have access to the right kind of respirators and safety training, in response to hundreds of reports of sick workers in the Gulf. As I wrote when we launched our campaign:

The government agency responsible for overseeing worker safety – the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) – says that their tests showed respirators aren’t yet required for cleanup workers in the Gulf. While OSHA is still studying the air quality in the Gulf, it should be no coincidence that dozens of people working around BP’s oil disaster are falling ill with symptoms of chemical exposure to oil.

OSHA’s since walked back that stance. These new recommendations are a mixed bag for workers, though; the government’s announcement emphasized that most workers don’t need respirators because their air quality tests don’t show dangerous levels.

Based on air monitoring data collected to date, exposures to hydrocarbons, dispersants and other hazardous chemicals are below established occupational exposure limits. In most situations that have been examined to date, mandatory wearing of respirators is not required.

Air monitoring as it’s currently performed won’t be a reliable way to completely protect workers. But for most workers, air monitoring will be the only determinant of whether they should have respirators. Now, many workers, including beach recovery crews, probably don’t need respirators on a regular basis. But with only 15-20 OSHA employees assigned at any given time, there’s a relatively small part of the massive operation that can be monitored at any given time. All other air monitoring data comes from CTEH, a company contracted by BP to measure air quality and worker safety hazards that has a history of underreporting and otherwise covering for oil companies.

OSHA and NIOSH recommend frequent respiratory use for people on ships near the well, as well as anyone involved with burning oil. As you get further from the source well, and fresh oil, their recommended respiratory usage gradually drops. According to the report, weathered oil – oil that has been exposed to the sun and elements – is less toxic than fresh crude oil, and therefore respiratory use isn’t required.

But the recommendations are based almost exclusively on the toxicity of oil, with little impact from chemical dispersants being sprays from the sky and at the bottom of the ocean. Of the tens of millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, very few are pure crude oil. The vast majority of oil is contaminated with Corexit, BP’s petroleum-based chemical dispersant. Even OSHA and NIOSH admit they have no idea how toxic dispersants are to humans.

In addition, there is an incomplete understanding about the human health toxicity associated with the use of large amounts of dispersant, about the toxicity of the mixed exposure to large amounts of crude oil, dispersants and combustion products together and the cumulative effect of such exposures occurring over a long duration.

Despite not understanding how toxic dispersants are to humans, OSHA falls short of ensuring maximum protection for people coming into contact with dispersants or dispersed oil. While the recommendations call for skin and eye protection for people applying dispersants, respiratory protection is required only as a last resort. Here’s what is recommended for anyone who’s not at the well or burning oil.

Some vessels operating off-shore engage in deployment of containment and sorbent booms, skimming operations to remove oil from the water, and dispersant application. These vessels are not involved in burning nor are they located in close proximity to in-situ burning. Generally, these vessels have contact with oil that has weathered, and, as such, does not emit significant amounts of VOCs. Respiratory protection generally will not be necessary as symptoms/health effects are not expected to occur in this setting. Dermal protection is needed.

There’s a disconnect for me between not knowing the toxicity of dispersants and not requiring abundant protection. To the credit of OSHA and NIOSH, workers near the most crude and oil vapors at the well will be required to wear respirators quite frequently, if not constantly. Respirators will also be required for anyone coming in contact with oil vapors from high pressure washing or similar treatment of oil. (Vapors from high pressure hoses were one of the biggest health hazards for Exxon Valdez recovery workers.)

No matter the recommendations, neither OSHA nor NIOSH have the resources to adequately test and monitor the region. What’s required is active surveillance of as many workers as possible to determine health risks. One option suggested to me by an expert was to assign an expert to each recovery crew. Unfortunately, little to no surveillance is happening because of how strapped the agencies are. During a Congressional hearing, OSHA administrator David Michels adamantly turned down an offer to expand his agency’s authority to offshore rigs and workers.

We can’t trust BP’s monitoring. People are getting sick despite air quality monitoring. These recommendations are an OK first step, but we have a ways to go to make sure every worker has the maximum protection they need.

I called the Department of Labor for comment yesterday morning about this report, but did not receive answers to my questions yet. I’ll update if I hear anything.