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NIEHS and OSHA Lead Oil Spill Worker Safety Efforts

By Eddy Ball
June 2010

Deepwater Horizon disaster
According to Hughes, the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon disaster is quickly outstripping available resources. (Photo courtesy of the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command)

Chip Hughes
Recalling the string of strategy meetings and the mood of participants, a somber Hughes showed the physical and emotional strain of the past weeks. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Capt. Michael Macinski
Among the many sympathetic and concerned Council members was U.S. Navy Capt. Michael Macinski, who questioned pressure to waive health and safety standards during a disaster at a time when responders need them most. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Safety booklet
In addition to safety booklets ( in English and Spanish, Hughes and his team provided information in Vietnamese, above, to meet the needs of the population of Southeast Asians involved in fishing along the Gulf Coast. (Photo courtesy of WETP)

As part of the federal government's response to the massive oil spill ( Exit NIEHS April 20 in the Gulf of Mexico, NIEHS ( and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are leading efforts to develop recommendations for worker safety during the clean up.

In a presentation ( to the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council May 13, NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program (WETP) Director Chip Hughes reported on his team's experiences on point along the Louisiana and Alabama coasts as part of the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command.

Characterizing the response effort as "a finger in the dike," Hughes outlined the ways his team and its federal partners have called upon the fruits of past training collaborations to provide emergency information on worker training and help mobilize experienced hazmat instructors from unions, universities, and community colleges across the Gulf Region and as far away as Massachusetts and Washington State.

Hughes said that responders are frustrated by a number of unknown factors, including the exact volume of oil involved, the composition of weathered crude, the environmental and health effects of dispersants, air pollution impact, and how workers will be affected by pollutants through skin contact, inhalation, and ingestion.

As Hughes explained, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is participating in the U.S. National Response Team, providing consultation and support on public health surveillance strategies to federal and state partners, and developing informational resources through efforts by programs in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , NIEHS, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, Office of Public Health and Science, and Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. They are supporting efforts by several other federal partners, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Department of Labor.

In its initial response to the disaster, NIEHS posted its Gulf Coast Oil Spill Emergency Response and Cleanup Information on the WETP National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Health Training Web site ( In the following weeks, NIEHS WETP Director Chip Hughes worked with leaders of other agency programs to coordinate worker training and safety efforts on site.

WETP staff members Jim Remington and Ted Outwater deployed to command centers in Houma, La., and Mobile, Ala., in early May, where they joined colleagues from OSHA and British Petroleum coordinating field-training operations. At OSHA's request, the CDC 's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) sent Captain Margaret Kitt, deputy director for program issues, to Louisiana to facilitate NIOSH technical assistance to OSHA and NIEHS.

WETP staff and awardees quickly updated emergency support activation plans to be ready for deployment in the field. In Sarasota, Fla., NIEHS grantees at the Mote Marine Laboratory, funded through the Centers for Oceans and Human Health (COHH) program, added an oil-spill reporting tool to their existing beach conditions report ( Exit NIEHS that monitors conditions along the coast of Florida.

Hughes closed his presentation with a statement about his hopes for the response effort that is unfolding on the Gulf Coast. "In remembrance of the eleven Deepwater Horizon drilling rig workers who died at MC252," read his final slide, "may they not be forgotten."

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