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Environmental Factor

June 2011

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WETP workshop explores lessons learned from the Gulf oil spill

By Ryan Campbell
June 2011

standing, Chip Hughes and Jim Remington, watching

Hughes, standing, made his opening remarks as WETP Program Analyst Jim Remington watched. Hughes described the worker training WETP facilitated for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response, compared to previous disasters, especially considering the size of the workforce involved. (Photo courtesy of MDB)

John Ferris

Ferris said that in the future, agencies must work closer with responsible parties to protect workers and commit to obtaining a greater number of skilled and trained workers. (Photo courtesy of MDB)

Lizzie Grossman

Grossman emphasized the need for real-time communication during a disaster, as well as the need for better communication and trust between all the parties involved. (Photo courtesy of MDB)

Mary Williams

Mary Williams, program manager for community outreach at the NIEHS-funded Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, offered insight into the spill's impact on the people of the region. (Photo courtesy of MDB)

Aubrey Miller, M.D.

NIEHS Senior Medical Advisor Aubrey Miller, M.D., moderated a panel on medical monitoring and surveillance efforts in the aftermath of the oil spill. (Photo courtesy of MDB)

The NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program (WETP)( workshop "Deepwater Horizon Lessons Learned: Improving Safety and Health Training for Disaster Cleanup Workers" convened May 3-5 in Mobile, Ala.

The intensive workshop brought together many people involved in responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, including NIEHS WETP awardees, federal agency staff, and community leaders, as well as British Petroleum (BP) personnel and contractors. Approximately 120 people attended the three-day event.  

The federal perspective

In opening remarks, WETP Director Joseph "Chip" Hughes spoke about the decisions made during the oil spill. He highlighted a recent U.S. Coast Guard report that set, as a future goal, a more ideal safety culture, including comprehensive training for both platform workers and cleanup workers. He acknowledged the value of input from the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on the right to understand for training those whose first language is not English. As part of the Unified Command Team, NIEHS developed training materials in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese during the initial response.

John Ferris, of the OSHA Directorate of Technical Support and Emergency Management( Exit NIEHS, highlighted the differences between the Deepwater Horizon response effort and more typical natural disaster responses. Ferris said that for an oil spill response, the responsible party for the disaster, in this case BP, plays the central role, although the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and OSHA still have major responsibilities. Ferris also emphasized the importance of partnerships with local officials.

In her keynote address, Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.(, NIEHS/NTP director, highlighted NTP efforts to research the effects of the crude oil and dispersants. She noted that there are eight other U.S. Department of Health and Human Services components researching the health impacts of the oil spill, that NIEHS quickly issued a number of time-sensitive grants related to the spill, and that webinars and meetings have been held in the Gulf region to promote stakeholder involvement and awareness. Birnbaum closed by describing the recently launched GuLF STUDY (Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study), an NIEHS health study specifically for workers and volunteers who helped clean up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (see story(

The community perspective

The first plenary panel of the workshop gave voice to the diverse perspectives of communities affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Grace Scire, area director of Boat People SOS-Gulf Coast( Exit NIEHS, a non-profit Vietnamese support organization, discussed the language barriers associated with training Vietnamese populations in the Gulf region. She advocated that community groups be integrated into the response process as early as possible.

Lizzie Grossman, an independent journalist in the Gulf region, said that at times she experienced delays in obtaining information, and suggested that both government agencies and the responsible party need to provide more information sooner to reporters and residents.

Lessons learned on the front lines

The second plenary panel, "On-Site Lessons Learned," consisted of a fishing boat captain, a worker safety advisor, and a representative from BP.  Captain Bob Zales, president of the National Association of Charterboat Operators ( Exit NIEHS, who was hired by BP for cleanup operations at sea, emphasized the importance of locally obtained knowledge and skills when working in the often-tricky currents and tides of the Gulf of Mexico. Zales said local crewmen know Gulf navigation best and can assist with logistical coordination during a disaster.

David Coffey, lead for the NIEHS-funded The New England Consortium ( Exit NIEHS at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, was a worker safety advisor and performed on-site evaluations in the Gulf region. He observed a need for more educational materials, training provided in additional foreign languages, and a better understanding by trainers of conditions at the disaster site itself.

Tamara Joslin, incident training lead for BP, described the partnerships and contractors utilized by BP, while highlighting the company's training matrix used to identify the various modules of training required.

Workshop summary in production

A report on the entire workshop including the recommendations focused on best practices, training and community resources and tools, and additional steps for improving response efforts during a disaster, is currently in preparation.

(Ryan Campbell is on the staff of MDB, a contractor for the WETP and NIEHS Superfund Research Program.)

Tamara Joslin

Joslin offered the perspective of the systems implementation team at BP on lessons learned from the historic oil spill. (Photo courtesy of MDB)

Captain Bob Zales, standing

Zales, standing, advocated for having workers trained prior to the next disaster occurrence. Seated beside him, Coffey prepared to speak about training gaps. (Photo courtesy of MDB)

For the record, looking ahead

On the final day of the workshop, attendees divided into three structured breakout sessions: community involvement during disasters, site-specific training, and pre-deployment training. These sessions focused on best practices, training and community involvement resources and tools, and additional steps for improving response efforts during a disaster.

NIEHS WETP sincerely thanked all of the participants for their candor and thoughtfulness during this extensive workshop evaluation of response efforts in the aftermath of the April 20, 2010 explosion and subsequent months-long oil spill.

Created in 1986 under the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, WETP funds non-profit organizations with a demonstrated track record in developing and delivering hazardous waste operation and emergency responder training under the standards implemented by OSHA.

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