Even when emergency responders use the best available protection, many problems can still arise. For instance, Murray says, “Wearing a respirator is not benign”—longer-term use can tax the lungs, and a respirator, especially combined with a protective suit, can contribute to substantial heat stress. The Deepwater Horizon Unified Area Command—which includes BP and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), in consultation with OSHA—weighed the risks and benefits of using respirators during the first seven weeks of the Deepwater Horizon cleanup. BP spokesman Mark Proegler says that since no air standards were being violated, the company chose not to issue respirators to workers (under OSHA’s voluntary respirator requirements) and to reassign any workers who insisted on wearing a respirator. After consultation with NIOSH, BP has agreed to provide respirators to personnel involved in the in situ burning of oil, Proegler says.
According to Proegler, all such decisions are made mutually through the Unified Area Command, but many critics have questioned who is in charge of worker protection—or who should be in charge. However, in this emergency and others, laws that are based on factors such as the geographic location of the accident and the material involved dictate who is responsible for what, precluding some options.
Proegler says the Safety Unit of the Unified Area Command includes safety and industrial hygiene personnel from the USCG, BP, and OSHA. In the Deepwater Horizon response, although OSHA does not have jurisdiction offshore, the Unified Area Command has a written memorandum of understanding that defines a consultative role for OSHA. In addition, he says, the USCG and OSHA each have safety and industrial hygiene personnel at the Mobile and Houma command centers.
When considering the roles of public and private parties, Crane says, “There has to be a complementary role for both. It’s an important and necessary partnership, but it’s not always a happy marriage.” To diminish the impacts of any disagreements on emergency responders, he says it’s essential they hear the same guidance for protective practices from both the public and private parties because such mutual reinforcement is more likely to sink in.
Eight U.S. House committees worked in June and July on legislation that could change many aspects of emergency responses, potentially including supervision, protection, surveillance and research of health problems, and medical treatment. For instance, the proposed Oil Spill Accountability and Environmental Protection Act of 2010 that was being discussed in the House in July includes provisions requiring that the party responsible for an incident pay for personal injuries suffered due to that incident, says Lisette Morton, legislative director for Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D–NY). That would modify the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which doesn’t stipulate such payments. However, Morton says it probably won’t be until at least September that the House and Senate may agree on a bill with these and other provisions.
Nadler says one overarching document that doesn’t need much revision at this time is the National Response Framework, a guide administered by the Department of Homeland Security that spells out how all parties should prepare for and respond to disasters. “[The framework is] good if it’s adhered to,” he says, but that didn’t happen for the Deepwater Horizon crisis, he adds. “Generally speaking, the government has significant authority it just didn’t fully utilize or adequately carry out,” he explains. “We’re not talking about a major overhaul, but rather fine-tuning and direction.”
The basic guidance in OSHA’s Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard (HAZWOPER),27
a primary guide for emergency responders, also helps create adequate protection if it’s followed, Hughes says. For instance, he notes that HAZWOPER generally adopts a precautionary approach, suggesting greater initial protection for workers and downgrading that only if incoming data confirm that lesser protection is warranted. “And that’s the approach we have consistently encouraged BP to take,” he says.
To better implement in the field what is on paper, Crane says it’s best to first inform volunteers they may be vulnerable to health effects from emergency response if they have existing health problems, then let them decide whether to work. However, economic considerations often mean workers feel they can’t afford to refuse hazardous work.
Once workers are in the field, Crane says it’s essential to follow the basics: educate them, train them for their specific task(s), identify the natural leaders, work within the culture of the group, explain and enforce job rules, closely monitor all workers, and make sure personal protective equipment is replaced or repaired if it becomes damaged.
When considering iffy situations such as the use of respirators in hot settings, Murray says one remedy is to use air-conditioned protective suits, although she acknowledges these are expensive and in short supply. Another option is to provide standard respirators and make sure workers take frequent breaks and are paid for their break times. She adds that supervisors and monitors need to be independent experts who aren’t obligated to please a company trying to save money.