Safety First: Heartbreaking Reminder

The Gulf oil spill powerfully demonstrates the need for workplace safety.

The oil spill and cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico have been dominating the news for more than two months. The scope of this environmental disaster is difficult to fathom, and the adverse impact on wildlife, fishermen and others dependent on the Gulf is heartbreaking to contemplate.

But what needs to be remembered is that this environmental disaster had its roots in a workplace accident. Who died? Fathers. Husbands. Sons. Eleven oil rig workers died when the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded and caught fire on April 20.

When 11 people die in a workplace accident, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) normally conducts a thorough investigation and issues multiple citations, often in excess of $1 million dollars. Not this time. Because the oil platform was 52 miles off the Louisiana coast, it was outside the United States and therefore OSHA does not have jurisdiction over workplace conditions at that location.

Sadly, this is not the first time BP has been associated with a major workplace accident involving multiple fatalities. In 2005, a BP oil refinery in Texas City exploded, killing 15 workers and injuring about 170 others. OSHA issued the largest fine in the agency's history — $87 million, which BP is contesting.

The Texas City and Deepwater Horizon explosions are just the highest profile examples of the many accidents at BP facilities over the past decade that resulted in worker fatalities. There are disturbing parallels between BP and Massey Coal, the mining company associated with multiple fatal accidents and safety violations at coal mines over the past few years.

Even though solid waste companies have not been involved in accidents in which such a large number of people have been killed (thank God!), solid waste employers are subject to the same risks of willful citations and large OSHA fines. For example, a New York state hauler was fined more than $300,000 in 2009 after it failed to address violations identified in a previous OSHA inspection.

Even though the explosion that caused the spill occurred more than two months ago, there are ongoing safety and health concerns in connection with the cleanup. The weather along the Gulf Coast during June was very hot, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees and heat indexes hovering around 110. According to a recent article, more than 100 workers have had heat-related illnesses, some of which required hospitalization. In addition, some workers have gotten sick from fumes from the oil and chemicals used to disperse the spill.

In response, OSHA has assigned more than 20 inspectors to monitor workplace conditions on boats and beaches from Louisiana to Florida, and has posted guidance on its website. Cleanup workers are taking frequent work breaks and drinking plenty of water and sports drinks.

While the pollution of the Gulf beaches and the impacts on wildlife are the most visible consequences of the oil spill, the death of 11 employees and the exposure of thousands of cleanup workers, working in hot and humid conditions, to oil and chemicals are the other terrible legacies of this unprecedented accident.

Almost certainly, another consequence of the spill is that an already more vigilant OSHA will take an even more aggressive stance against companies viewed as “bad actors.”

David Biderman is general counsel for the National Solid Wastes Management Association. He oversees the organization's safety programs.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at [email protected].

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