Questions from McClatchy regarding BP and oil spill workers

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 5, 2010 

Some responses by BP to questions posed by McClatchy about possible toxic exposure by oil spill workers

1. I’d like to know in clear language what is BP’s position on the toxic effects on humans of the crude and weathered crude and dispersant from the Gulf spill. In other words, what should the public/workers know about the possible toxic effects of this chemical soup both off shore and onshore?

People need to know that BP and the agencies are extensively monitoring the air and water around the well site, along the shoreline, and the area in between the well and shore. The monitoring data shows that few people, if any, are exposed to levels of oil or dispersants that have even the potential to cause any significant adverse health effects. In many samples, these chemicals are not merely below government safety thresholds, they are not even detectable. When they have been detected, in most locations, the levels are well below the relevant thresholds that are considered to pose potential adverse effects.

There are three specific situations in which workers might be exposed to higher levels of oil, dispersants, or particulates and people in those jobs are told and trained to take additional precautions against exposure.

  • People working on the water surface above the well site during the period of releases faced higher levels of potential exposure. There have been a few occasions where volatile organic chemical levels were high enough to require these workers to use respirators for short periods of time, until the levels abated.
  • People who directly handled dispersants also needed to take precautions against excess exposure.
  • Workers who were involved with controlled crude oil burns occasionally had a need for respiratory protection in the event of possible exposure to some of the combustion products.
These workers are provided with protective equipment to use where needed. These workers are provided with training to ensure that they are aware of the risks of their work, and know how to perform it safely and with material data safety sheets (MSDS) that list the hazardous components of the fresh crude oil, weathered crude oil, and dispersants used in this incident response. The MSDS further describes the potential effects of exposure to these materials, and the protections that workers should take to avoid any adverse effects.

We are guided by OSHA and NIOSH and we work closely with them.

2. Based on previous studies of the components of crude, weathered crude and dispersant, shouldn’t people be worried that they could get sick from exposures to these chemicals?

See above. The general public should not be worried about getting sick from exposure to oil or dispersants. Monitoring data has confirmed that these chemicals are not present in most public places at levels of potential concern. Where they are present at all, it is commonly at levels that are well below those that might risk causing harm.

We have all seen photos of places that do have oily sheens on the water or tar balls on the beach. Because some people are sensitive to even low levels of oil, and BP and EPA both recommend that people do not swim in water that contains visible oil sheens. BP and NOAA both recommend that people do not pick up tar balls with their bare hands, or step on them with their bare feet. If a person does get oil or tar on their skin, the recommended action is to scrub it off promptly with soap or baby oil, to minimize potential skin irritation. No longer-term adverse effects are expected from such contact or exposure.

We carry out extensive real time and personal air monitoring of response workers onshore and offshore to determine the need for respiratory protection. We have collected more than 9,000 personal breathing zone samples resulting in almost 50,000 chemical constituent results. The chemicals monitored include the components of primary concern in the crude oil and dispersants including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, total hydrocarbons, and 2-butoxyethanol. The vast majority of monitoring results are either nondetect or, when detected, far below occupational exposure limits. There have been a very small number of samples in excess of occupational exposure limits which have generally been determined to be attributable to isolated circumstances such as leaking hydraulic fluid on a marine vessel. Our detailed monitoring results are posted on our web site along with a summary of results which are depicted in easy to read bar graphs.

Both OSHA and NIOSH have conducted worker monitoring for these same constituents and obtained results consistent with ours. We work closely with both of those agencies to carefully consider the appropriate personal protective equipment workers should use including respirators.

Monitoring results indicate that (a) source control vessels, (b) vessels involved in controlled crude oil burns and (c) vessels involved with dispersant application are the only situations where respirators may occasionally be required. Respirators are available and use is required on the rare occasion when worker monitoring results exceed action levels.

Extensive air monitoring results for on shore activities consistently indicate that exposure to chemical constituents of potential concern are routinely well below regulatory guidelines. The use of respiratory protection in situations where exposures are below levels of concern is not recommended because there are risks associated with use of respirators—increased physiological stress (reduced communication, heavier breathing and visual restriction) as well as possible increased heat load created when respirators are worn.

Offshore we prefer that vessels, if possible, adjust their operations so that people are not exposed to levels where respirators are needed.

Out of an abundance of caution we do not ask people to work for extended periods in areas where respirators are necessary.

3. What studies is BP relying on to determine the possible toxic effects?

Our research has included consideration of many years of government and other studies. We might put together a list of some of the studies reported in the literature that evaluate oil and the dispersants used in the spill response for your information. It is a long list, so this would take some time.

4. What is BP’s stance on the use of respirators for certain jobs in the spill at this point and should they be required not just recommended? If not, why not?

Both OSHA and NIOSH have conducted worker monitoring for these same constituents and obtained results consistent with ours. We work closely with both of those agencies to carefully consider the appropriate personal protective equipment workers should use including respirators.

Monitoring results indicate that source control vessels, vessels involved in controlled crude oil burns, and vessels involved in the application of dispersants are the only situations where respirators may occasionally be required. Respirators are available and use is required on the rare occasion when worker monitoring results exceed action levels.

5. Is BP following all of the OSHA and NIOSH recommendations when it comes to possible toxic exposure?

We follow all OSHA and NIOSH recommendations. We monitor and share the results with OSHA and NIOSH. Results are posted on their websites.

6. How is BP enforcing these standards?

BP supports and follows science-based approaches to the setting of occupational exposure limits including PELs. OSHA has a process in place for the amendment of existing PEls, which they have used on several occasions, when warranted. If the science were deemed to support a reduction in current levels, BP would, of course, follow any new standards and adapt practices to abide them, if necessary. Other organizations such as ACGIH and NIOSH publish recommended exposure levels, which can be more conservative than OSHA's PELs. Our worker monitoring results in the vast majority of cases have been well below those recommended limits as well.

7. How does the company know that people are being properly protected?

BP’s number one priority is people’s safety—responders’ and the public’s. For responders involved in the cleanup effort, or at risk of coming into contact with oil or any other chemicals, many safety precautions are taken to protect their health and safety.

We carry out extensive air and water monitoring, to determine whether any occupational or other established exposure thresholds have been exceeded. We share our monitoring results with the appropriate regulatory authorities to ensure we are in compliance, and to ensure that the regulators can take or recommend action, if any is needed. We provide protective clothing to people whose work requires it.

Any worker who believes he or she has been exposed to an unsafe level of contaminants at work has access to doctors who are trained to recognize and treat occupational exposure. Any member of the public who has a similar concern may obtain independent medical advice from the Rocky Mountain Poison Control Center, a nationally-recognized institution that specializes in providing advice to people who have been accidentally exposed to a wide variety of chemicals. Moreover, if anyone has any concerns about the conditions they have encountered in the Gulf, or their health, they are encouraged to raise them directly with us. We will do our best to address those concerns promptly and appropriately.

Each day NOAA updates its forecast of oil trajectories that may be heading for some portion of the Gulf coastline. Using those forecasts, aerial photos, and other reports from people in the field, shoreline assessment cleanup teams (SCAT) monitor the beaches for evidence of visible oil. BP advises the public to avoid any contact with visible crude oil, whether found in the water or on the beaches, and to report any crude oil sightings to us so that we can take appropriate action to promptly clean up and remove it. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has provided the same advice to people who ask whether the water is safe for swimming, and whether the beaches are safe for general public use.

Furthermore, we have conducted extensive air monitoring along the shoreline to assure that the public is being protected. This monitoring has consistently confirmed that the ambient air concentrations of the constituents of concern on shore have been typical of ambient air conditions prior to the spill.

8. How often and where have workers had to don respiratory protection – if at all?

A few times. See answer to question above.

9. The exposure limits are criticized – even by the regulatory agencies themselves – as inadequate and not indicative of whether workers are safe. How does BP see it?

BP supports a science-based approach to the setting of occupational exposure limits including PELs. OSHA has a process in place for the amendment of existing PELs, which they have used on several occasions, when warranted. If the science should support a reduction, BP would, of course, abide by any new standards. Other organizations such as ACGIH and NIOSH publish recommended exposure levels which can be more conservative than OSHA's PELs. Our worker monitoring results in the vast majority of cases have been well below those recommended limits as well.

10. There are more than 41,000 workers involved in the spill response at this point. Of those, how many are offshore, how many are near shore and how many are on shore? How many are under BP’s direct oversight in terms of worker safety and health regulations? Of those, how many are required to wear respiratory protection and what types of jobs are they performing? If a worker in a job that NIOSH and OSHA recommends have respiratory protection, but BP’s health and safety plans do not recommend respiratory protection, does BP rely on its own plans or defer to OSHA/NIOSH?

The answer to your question would vary from day to day depending on current conditions. In terms of protection and types of jobs it very much depends upon the type of work and the operational requirements. We regularly coordinate with OSHA, NIOSH, and other agencies concerning worker protection issues and have modified personal protective equipment requirements and work practices in response to their recommendations. In addition, we follow regulatory requirements and applicable guidelines.

11. Independent doctors, former health officials, worker health and safety officials and industry experts are critical of BP’s guidance to the public on the possible toxic effects of the crude, weathered crude and dispersants as vague. They also say BP has been too slow and not aggressive enough in offering that guidance. How do you respond?

BP provides detailed data to EPA, OSHA, NIOSH, and other agencies that are responsible for protecting the public from unsafe levels of exposure to chemicals. Those agencies are the responsible authorities on matters concerning any potential health effects of crude oil, weathered crude oil, and dispersants. Their designated representatives regularly speak to the media about these issues. They publish helpful materials on their websites about these issues. They have the relevant expertise and the facts; they are in the best position to communicate with the public on these issues, and we believe they have provided the public with accurate information in a timely way.

We have provided all the information that is and has been required of BP. In addition, if anyone has any concerns about conditions or their health, they are encouraged to raise them. We will do our best to address them. If they are still concerned regarding exposure to oil or chemicals, and if they are involved in the response and wish to be reassigned to a different job, we will accommodate that request if we can.

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