WASHINGTON — BP's plan to protect workers fighting the massive oil spill in the Gulf, which the Coast Guard approved on May 25, exposes them to higher levels of toxic chemicals than generally accepted practices permit.
Moreover, BP isn't required to give workers respirators, to evacuate them from danger zones, or to take other precautions until conditions are more dangerous. The looser standards are due in part to federal regulations that don't specify safety thresholds for volatile organic compounds, or VOCs — the principal toxins that threaten the health of spill response workers, experts said.
BP's plan also fails to address the use of more than 1 million gallons of dispersants so far in the cleanup.
"This plan is not workable and offers a false sense of security," said Eileen Senn, a former state and federal health and safety official for more than 40 years. "It gives the impression that you can write a procedure to dodge chemical bullets that are coming at you constantly."
Critics are questioning the quality of the company's plan as a growing number of oil spill workers are becoming sick.
The illnesses have sparked a debate about whether the Obama administration should be pushing BP to take more stringent precautions or even wrest control of the company's health and safety response.
More than 24,400 people are working on the response to the spill. Of the 50 workers who have reported becoming ill in Louisiana, most of their symptoms cleared up quickly, but a majority of the workers think the dispersants were to blame.
"Overall, BP's plan is not responsive to the health complaints we're hearing about," said Franklin Mirer, a toxicologist and Hunter College professor.
The Coast Guard didn't respond to repeated requests for comment. As a result, it's unclear what role the Coast Guard had in independently evaluating BP's plan or in assessing the adequacy of the safety standards.
On Wednesday, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's point man on the oil spill, said he had "a lot of concerns about worker safety" given the hot weather and concerns about VOCs.
He said firefighting vessels have been dispatched to the area to spray a "water blanket" on the oil to prevent chemical vapors from rising.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and BP are monitoring the air offshore and so far haven't found levels of toxic chemicals that exceed federal standards.
The BP plan, known as the Offshore Air Monitoring Plan for Source Control, allows workers to stay in an area when vapors are at a level that's four times higher than accepted practice to prevent an explosion.
The Marine Spill Response Corp., an oil and gas industry organization, recommended lower levels in the mid-1990s, according to a document posted on OSHA's website. Even the accepted level "is a very high exposure from a health point of view," Mirer said. "At that point, workers should be leaving the site," he said, rather than just monitoring the situation as the plan requires.
However, Ray Viator, a BP spokesman, called the company's plan "aggressive" in its monitoring of toxins in the air and protecting workers. The plan, he said, applies to workers who are burning off the oil, applying the dispersant, drilling the relief wells and performing other operations near the source of spill. The company installed charcoal ventilation systems in the crew quarters and made sure respirators are on hand in the boats directly in the spill area although so far the equipment haven't been used.
"It's a complex plan for a complex situation," he said. "It's being managed by professionals who have reviewed the plan and who are making sure it's being implemented correctly. It involves graduated responses and we're prepared to accelerate it if the situation arises. So far, it hasn't arisen."
However, Mirer, the toxicologist, said he was surprised by the levels the plan permits and wondered whether it reflected what workers could be exposed to as the cleanup continues.
"The question is: Do they anticipate or have any evidence that a concentration like this exists, or are they just writing this down?" Mirer asked.
Experts also said that the plan permits levels of VOCs in living quarters that are too high and don't take into account that the fact many workers are working more than eight hours a day and therefore could be exposed to potentially higher cumulative levels of toxins.
Overall, the plan is too complex and requires various responses that seem difficult to carry out, said several experts who reviewed the plan at McClatchy's request.
"This protocol seems to be written in a way that allows them to continue to work when conditions are such that, in any other setting, you'd pull your workers or you'd put them in better protection," said Mark Catlin, a worker safety advocate and expert who worked on the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska.
Not all experts were as critical although they all had similar concerns about the permitted levels of explosive vapors.
Bruce Lippy, a worker health and safety consultant who helped monitor worker exposure at the World Trade Center site, where a number of rescue workers suffered permanent lung damage after the 9/11 attacks, said the plan was adequate and praised BP for calling for more stringent testing of respirators.
"There are some strengths to the plan," he said. "They've covered most of the bases."
Officials with OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health also saw the plan, according to BP.
However, earlier this week, David Michaels, the head of OSHA, acknowledged that his agency's reach applied only as far as three miles off shore, which meant that most of the fishermen helping with the near-shore cleanup are covered by the agency's jurisdiction. Not so for workers close to the source of the spill, he said.
Administration officials have said that they're concerned about possible respiratory effects, especially given there are few studies on the illnesses that oil spill workers experience.
Health officials are worried about requiring respirators prematurely because of the heat conditions that many workers are exposed to. Already, many workers have succumbed to heat-related illnesses, and respirators could make symptoms worse.
Nonetheless, staff researchers for NIOSH wear respirators when monitoring the air on vessels.
In an interview with McClatchy, Dr. John Howard, who heads NIOSH, called it a "precaution" but added, "We don't have a lot of data here."
His agency is still investigating the cause of the illness of seven workers who were hospitalized.
A preliminary investigation by BP determined that seven workers might not have been properly instructed on the use of a cleaning concentrate. Yet the day after BP reached this conclusion, BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, claimed that the illnesses might be unrelated to the spill and instead could be symptoms of food poisoning.
"We're trying to do our own independent thing here and be able to corroborate," Howard said in an interview. "BP, like many corporations, sometimes does have some credibility issues."
Howard and Michaels faced questions about respirators and other precautions being used during the oil spill at this week's meeting of a health and safety advisory committee.
Denise Pouget, an assistant Fire-EMS chief for the city of Alexandria, Va., questioned whether OSHA has allowed for "reduced" training standards of cleanup workers. OSHA has allowed BP to train most workers in handling hazardous materials for four or eight hours — fewer hours than required in other disaster incidents.
"I can't help but think this is like a large hazardous materials incident," she said.
"Absolutely, respiratory protections and air monitoring would be the number one priority."
In many cases, she noted, depending on the location of the emergency worker, she would order her workers to wear hazardous material suits.
Michaels responded that the standards had been "modified", not lowered, based on experience with previous disasters.
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