Special Reports

McCLATCHY EXCLUSIVE | BP failure endangers cleanup workers

WASHINGTON — Federal regulators complained in a scathing internal memo about “significant deficiencies” in BP’s handling of the safety of oil spill workers and asked the Coast Guard to help pressure the company to address a litany of concerns.

The memo, written by a Labor Department official earlier this week and obtained by McClatchy, reveals the Obama administration’s growing concerns about potential health and safety problems posed by the oil spill and its inability to force BP to respond to them.

BP said it’s deployed 22,000 workers to combat the spill, which experts now estimate has spewed 37 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. At this point, much of the oil remains offshore.

David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health who wrote the memo, raised the concerns on Tuesday, the day before seven oil spill workers on boats off the coast of Louisiana were hospitalized after they experienced nausea, dizziness and headaches.

In his memo to Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, Michaels said his agency has witnessed numerous problems at several work sites and staging areas through the Gulf Coast region.

“The organizational systems that BP currently 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,” Michaels said in the memo.

“I want to stress that these are not isolated problems,” he continued. “They appear to be indicative of a general systemic failure on BP’s part, to ensure the safety and health of those responding to this disaster.”

Michaels added that BP “has also not been forthcoming with basic, but critical, safety and health information on injuries and exposures.”

Michaels raised the alarm about BP as his own agency was coming under fire for not being aggressive enough in monitoring the company or the contractors who are providing oil spill cleanup training.

Graham MacEwen, a spokesman for BP, maintained that his company is being responsive to any problems as they develop.

“We consider safety a number one priority,” he said. “We will continue to try to improve our safety record.”

He said that BP also was ensuring that cleanup workers are getting “very rigorous training,” adding that he wasn’t aware of any systemic problems being raised by the Obama administration.

“Whenever we see any problems, we’re moving very quickly to resolve them,” he said.

Michaels, however, raised several significant concerns in his memo that he said weren’t being addressed, including:

n Lack of sufficient control over work sites. As recently as May 20, he said, the agency found more than 800 workers at one of the Biloxi, Miss., sites without the required training.

n Difficulty in obtaining adequate and timely data from BP on injuries and illness, chemical sampling, monitoring data and training materials.

n Concerns that BP’s manager of workplace safety “does not appear to operate with the full support of the company, nor does he seem to have the authority necessary for the job which he has been tasked.”

“We strongly suggest that BP place someone in this position who has the authority and the ability to make changes expediently in order to address the safety and health of cleanup workers.”

n BP not addressing concerns about heat stroke. “There continue to be multiple heat-related incidents each day, some of which have been serious.”

In one incident, he said, six workers on Dauphin Island, Ala., where high temperatures reached into the mid-90 during the past week, experienced heat related illnesses. “An investigation revealed that there was no shade or cool drinks available to the workers that were cleaning the shoreline.”

Also, he said, BP didn’t stop the work until the workers were overcome.

Michaels said that if BP didn’t clean up its act, his agency would need to use its “authority to move into enforcement mode,” which could include court action or fines.

Worker safety advocates said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should be doing more.

Most workers are getting only the minimum hazardous-material training required, which is four hours. That’s because OSHA has chosen to apply training standards that date back to soon after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Mark Catlin, a worker safety advocate and expert who worked on the Valdez spill, said the four-hour minimum was recommended by Exxon. Catlin said OSHA had the discretion to require more extensive training, but had chosen not to.

“There’s a need for more and better training,” he said. “Eleven workers have already died and others were injured from the initial blast. We don’t need to have more people hurt or made ill during the cleanup.”

OSHA also has been criticized for not pushing BP hard enough to release more extensive worker exposure data.

Little-noticed data posted on BP’s website and the Deepwater Horizon site show that 32 air samples taken near workers have indicated the presence of butoxyethanol, a component listed as present in an oil spill dispersant used by BP, known as Corexit. The Environmental Protection Agency considers it toxic.

The BP document said the data demonstrates “that there are no significant exposures occurring.” OSHA is monitoring the data and has said the workers haven’t been exposed to harmful levels.

While experts agree that the level of exposure is lower than federal safety standards, they say that what little data that has been released provides more questions than answers.

“It’s cause for concern, both for workers who are on the vessels as well as near shore,” said Joseph T. Hughes Jr., the director of the worker education-training program for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “It’s just an indication that we should be cautious in terms of exposure during cleanup.”