BP's records on ill workers tell only part of the story

McClatchy NewspapersJune 15, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Although Louisiana state records indicate that at least 74 oil spill workers have complained of becoming sick after exposure to pollutants, BP's own official recordkeeping notes just two such incidents.

BP reported a wide range of worker injuries in the period from April 22 to June 10, from the minor — a sprained ankle, a pinched finger and a cat bite — to the more serious — three instances of workers being struck by lightning and one worker who lost part of a finger.

Only two were related to coming in contact with potentially toxic substances: a worker who in May was sprayed in the face with dispersant as he took a nozzle off a boom and another who inhaled crude oil vapors in June.

In contrast, Louisiana reports that 38 workers have reported becoming ill from dispersant or emulsified oil. Most of those said their symptoms cleared up quickly.

The gap between the state data and BP's reflects the difficulty in tracking the health effects of toxins from the oil spill. It also raises questions about whether the federal government can rely on BP to determine whether conditions remain safe for the more than 27,000 workers now engaged in cleaning up the worst oil spill in the nation's history.

State health officials note the limitations of their data, which is based on worker complaints.

"Some of these are objective (vomiting, for example), others are subjective (nausea, for example)," Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals said Tuesday in its weekly report on oil spill exposure. "There are large variations in how subjective symptoms are perceived and reported."

"There is no attempt made in this report to confirm the exact cause of symptoms or exposure," the report cautioned.

BP didn't respond to phone calls Tuesday seeking comment, but the company's records probably don't reflect the exposure that Louisiana tracked because Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations don't require that they do. The company is expected only to record illnesses and injuries on the job that require treatment that entails more than first aid.

"Anybody who calls the poison control center or drops into the emergency room without being officially hospitalized may not reach the level of an OSHA recordable," Jordan Barab, the deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, told McClatchy in an interview.

A May 26 incident involving the hospitalization of seven oil spill workers on boats off the coast of Louisiana also doesn't appear to be reflected in BP's data.

Those workers were taken to the hospital after they experienced nausea, dizziness and headaches. BP and health officials suspect that a solution used for cleaning the decks of oil-contaminated vessels may have been one of the factors that contributed to sickening the workers. The day after BP reached this conclusion, BP chief executive Tony Hayward claimed that the illnesses might be unrelated to the spill and instead could be symptoms of food poisoning.

Barab said the gap in data doesn't prevent OSHA from tracking health problems as they arise.

"We're trying to go places no matter what the numbers say," he said. "We're trying to be everywhere we can be."

Barab, however, said his agency is concerned that BP isn't required to track cleanup workers hired by state and local governments.

"That doesn't necessarily go under BP's logs," he said. "We're not quite sure whose log that's going on."

OSHA can't fine or cite BP or its contractors for worker safety violations on the ships and rigs working near the Deepwater Horizon site because its jurisdiction ends three miles off shore. Regulating worker safety on rigs falls to the Minerals Management Service or the Coast Guard.

MMS has been criticized for its lack of scrutiny of the oil and gas industry on many fronts. The "downside" of another agency asserting jurisdiction, Barab said, is that it "can have really lousy standards but we can't do anything about it."

So far, BP has complied voluntarily with regulations so the federal government has not had to cite or fine any of the companies involved, Barab said.

"At this point, the jurisdiction issue has not been a problem for us," he said.

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