Engulfed by Risks

June 8th, 2010 by

We are following the consequences of the gulf oil disaster with increasing despair. Images of oil soaked birds, dead fish, and the serene Gulf waters transformed from the customary beautiful blue-green to an appalling brown. Our thoughts also turn to the men and women laboring under very challenging conditions to contain the impact of this man-made disaster.
NIOSH has issued the following summary of the exposures facing the recovery workers:

Chemical exposures may include benzene and other volatile organic compounds, oil mist, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and diesel fumes. Physical hazards may include ergonomic hazards, excessive noise levels, sun exposure and heat stress. Injuries may occur due to slips, trips, and falls on slippery or uneven walking and working surfaces. Other safety hazards are associated with the use of tools, equipment, machinery, and vehicles. Biological hazards include possible exposure to biting or venomous insects or other animals. Psychological hazards may include witnessing traumatic injuries or death, inability to help affected wildlife, and fatigue.

You can read the CDC’s 96 page opus on managing the exposures to emergency workers here. (I can’t help but wonder if this particular web-available document is symbolically collecting dust on the shelf, like so many other well-intentioned but rather long-winded safety manuals – the ones risk managers point to with pride during a tour of an industrial plant.
“We’re Hiring!”
BP has hired about 22,000 workers to help with the clean up. I wonder how carefully they screened the new hires. Any rapid ramp up is full of risk; the hazards of hiring on this scale for jobs full of open-ended risk is simply beyond calculation. How many of the 22,000 workers will end up with work-related illnesses and injuries? How would you project the future impact on BP’s workers comp costs? (Perhaps BP is calling the new hires “independent contractors.” Some may well be; most are not.)
Under regulatory scrutiny, BP has provided some form of rudimentory training and the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) for the new workers. But how well is the work supervised? With temperatures routinely in the high 80s and the heat index over 100 degrees, how long can people function in the requisite protective suits, steel-toed boots, gloves, hard hats and safety glasses? What is the impact of raw crude on bare skin and laboring lungs?
Looming Epidemic?
There have already been reports of illnesses among these workers. Law firms have put out the word that at least one of the dispersants used in the clean up may harm workers:

OSHA representatives, Obama administration officials and others have expressed concerns that the oil dispersant chemical Corexit may be the source of the illnesses reported on May 26 by cleanup workers. In May, the EPA urged BP to stop using Corexit because of its toxicity. Corexit is manufactured by Nalco, whose board of directors has strong ties to the oil industry, including sharing at least one board member with BP.

We all feel a sense of urgency on an unprecedented scale as the pristine Gulf waters are sullied by millions of gallons of oil. A huge workforce has been mobilized to help with the clean up. Looming on the distant horizon is the cost of cleaning up the damage to those who are currently engaged in the clean up. It’s something we give only passing thought to today. But the time will come when those costs are as conspicuous and nearly as disturbing as the image of an oil-soaked pelican trying to spread its soiled wings, trying and failing to launch itself into the brilliant blue skies of its Gulf home.

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