For more than 6 weeks, many residents of the Gulf Coast have become impromptu BP employees, cleaning up a toxic oil spill that threatens to ruin their communities and their livelihoods. Because most of the cleanup workers are not intimately familiar with the dangers of crude oil, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has created a safety guide and fact sheet, which it is distributing by the thousands to workers throughout the Gulf Coast.
Before workers are set out in the Gulf to deal with the oil spill, they must undergo OSHA-required training. The safety guides and fact sheets serve to supplement the knowledge that cleanup workers acquired in their training. They’re also good reminders of the risks involved in cleaning up an oil spill.
Labor Department Secretary Hilda Solis has urged BP to hire local workers displaced by the oil, many of them fishermen who lost their fishing grounds in the expanding slick. Solis said that it’s important for cleanup workers to protect themselves and stay safe on the job.
“We want those looking for work to get jobs, but no job is good unless it is safe,” Solis said.
A one- to two-hour training course is required for employees who will only engage in general beach cleanup, such as removing trash and clean debris. For those employees coming into contact with “weathered oil” and “tar balls” on the shoreline or in marine operations, a four-hour training class is required. This training is provided for free. After completing a class employees will receive a card as proof of their training.
A more rigorous 40-hour course is required for those employees who will supervise cleanup or be engaged in efforts involving a greater exposure to oil. In order to meet the certifications of the 40-hour training, a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on, applicable experience is required. This preparation includes instruction on the makeup and risks associated with the hazardous materials involved, and experience with the equipment needed for the work, safety gear, and local environment.
According to OSHA, workers engaged in placing or recovering boom, pressure washing boats, skimming and pumping oil, picking up oil-covered debris, and performing other shoreline cleanup operations face the following hazards:
• Heat stress – can range from heat exhaustion (headaches, dizziness, weakness, fainting) to heat stroke (hot, dry skin; no longer sweating; confusion). Heat stroke is an emergency and requires immediate medical care.
• Sunburn and sun poisoning
• Being hit by earth-moving or other equipment
• Skin and eye irritation or rashes (dermatitis) from contact with “weathered” oil
• Cuts, sprains and other injuries
• Bites from snakes, fire ants and mosquitoes, rodents and alligators
• Lightning and severe weather
• Back injury from lifting and carrying
• Traffic hazards and car accidents
• Exhaustion and fatigue from long hours and demanding work
Read the OSHA safety guidelines.
Copies are also available in Spanish and Vietnamese, the native language of many immigrant fishermen and shrimpers in the Gulf Coast, by visiting OSHA’s website at http://osha.gov/oilspills/deepwater-oil-spill-factsheet-ppe.pdf.