By JOSHUA CLIFTON, a Chicago-based writer who covers workers' comp and disability issues
Federal officials are growing increasingly concerned about the potential health and safety risks facing the more than 25,000 cleanup and response workers deployed in the Gulf Coast area in the wake the BP oil spill disaster, which began when an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana left 11 workers dead and crude gushing from a wellhead 5,000 feet below the ocean's surface.
Much of the public discussion has centered on the unparalleled environmental and economic impacts of what has become the largest offshore oil spill in American history. However, another crisis may be brewing that some experts believe could result in thousands of workers' compensation claims for individuals working in extreme conditions and facing exposure to a variety of toxic substances on a daily basis.
"The impacts of this calamity do not end in the water or on the shores," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who chairs the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee. "The crude oil and burning operations have left the air in the regions closest to the incident thick with a mixture of chemicals that have been tied to acute health problems such as headaches, dizziness, nausea and respiratory irritation. These chemicals have also been linked to the development of cancer and other chronic diseases."
BP has spent an estimated $2 billion on the cleanup efforts thus far.
Despite the effort, David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has expressed outrage over "significant deficiencies in BP's oil spill response operations related to worker safety."
In an internal memo to the national incident commander for the oil spill, Michaels wrote that these deficiencies present potentially "grave consequences for the workers currently involved in the cleanup and will become increasing acute as more oil hits the shore, more workers are involved and the complexity of the response increases."
Michaels said that, although OSHA has repeatedly raised its concerns with the oil company and its corporate leadership, BP has not addressed many of the serious problems in a systematic way. Among the chief concerns, the agency noted multiple reports of serious heat-related injuries, failure to make plans to protect employees from inclement weather, difficulty in obtaining basic health and safety injury reports; and ongoing issues with enforcement of site control procedures to ensure that all workers who are allowed onto a potentially contaminated worksite have been properly trained.
(OSHA currently maintains an oil spill Web site at http://www.osha.gov/oilspills/oilspill-activity-update.html.)
DECADES TO RESOLVE
Michael Patrick Doyle, partner at Doyle Raizner LLP in Houston, said that while a flood of property claims is beginning to surge forth, it is still too early to estimate the number of health and injury claims that will follow. The only comparable event in modern history, he said, was the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 off the coast of Alaska, which was surpassed in size and scope by the BP spill. Doyle said that many of the workers engaged in the Exxon cleanup efforts suffered from respiratory and neurological injuries for years and that these claims took decades to resolve. He expects a similar long, drawn-out process to follow in the Gulf.
"Unfortunately, I think that, consistent with the cleanup efforts, BP doesn't appear to be too considered with the details regarding the safety of the cleanup workers, many whom are being exposed to toxic dispersants that even the Environmental Protection Agency has expressed concerns about," he said.
Because of a complicated mix of federal and state regulations, the source of compensation for injuries and illnesses resulting from the spill is uncertain. Doyle, however, said he anticipates that these claims will fall into three categories--General Maritime Law claims for individuals who are injured while working on boats assigned to the offshore cleanup activities; federal claims under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act; and general workers' comp claims resulting from onshore injuries and chemical exposure.
IMPETUS FOR STRONGER FINES?
Speaking to attendees at the American Society of Safety Engineers' annual conference in Baltimore, Michaels used the platform to justify the agency's push for greater penalties for safety violators and enhanced enforcement tools. The structure for fining companies for incidents resulting from disasters such as the BP spill, Michaels said, isn't in line with other federal agencies, such as the EPA.
"Recently a worker died while cleaning a container," Michaels said. "I believe the employer was slapped with a $175,000 fine. But what gets me is that the same company was fined $10 million dollars for the same incident for causing pollution and negatively hurting the fish and crabs. So how do we tell the family of this worker who died that fish and crabs are worth more than his life?"
Michaels said the passage of the Protecting America's Workers Act, legislation currently being discussed in Congress, would be a start in fixing this problem. The bill, introduced by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., would raise the maximum penalties for safety violators, expand the rights of injury victims, provide coverage for public employees and strengthen whistleblower protections.
Increased penalties aside, Michaels stressed that the most important focus of OSHA's ramped-up engagement in the Gulf is to protect cleanup workers.
"We are on land and in boats all over the area checking for and providing solutions to possible harmful exposures to the cleanup workers such as chemicals, heat and fatigue," he said. "If we find any, we tell BP and they correct them. We're not there to hand out citations, but to protect workers--prevent injuries and illnesses."
Read more at the WORKERSCOMP ForumTM homepage.
June 22, 2010
Copyright 2010© LRP Publications