WASHINGTON — Federal regulators suspect a cleaning fluid may have sickened seven workers last week who were employed to stem the spread of oil in the Gulf, according to health and labor officials.
If true, the cause of the illness contradicts claims by BP's CEO, Tony Hayward, who claimed the illness may be unrelated to the spill and instead could be the symptoms of food poisoning.
The theory is being pursued as a growing number of workers are beginning to voice concerns that a different chemical, the dispersant Corexit, is making them sick. The EPA has urged BP to scale back on the use of the dispersant in part because of its toxicity.
On May 26, seven oil spill workers on boats off the coast of Louisiana were hospitalized after they experienced nausea, dizziness and headaches. On May 28, the disaster response team sent four more workers to the hospital by helicopter, including two who complained of chest pains.
In the first incident, a solution used for cleaning oil contaminated vessel decks "may have been one of the factors that contributed to sickening the workers who were hospitalized last week," said Joseph T. Hughes Jr., the director of the worker education-training program for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Hughes cautioned that it was too early to say with any certainty that the solution, which has since been replaced with a different cleaning fluid, is the only culprit until a full-scale health hazard evaluation is completed.
David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, told McClatchy that the possible cause arose out of a preliminary investigation by BP and it was determined that the workers might not have been properly instructed on the use of the cleaner. It's also possible that the workers were made ill by a combination of causes including long hours working in the heat and exposure to fumes, he said.
"The preliminary conclusion was reached," he said. "From a public health point of view, we make decisions based on the best available evidence. But we believe it's important to get additional information to identify the cause or causes of these workers getting sick."
BP did not immediately respond to questions about the possible causes.
But if the suspicions are correct, the case would add to a growing list of questions BP is facing about its training of the oil spill workers — many of whom are fishermen put out of work by the spill.
And if officials determine the cause was related to the cleanup workers duties, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration could be pressed to use its enforcement powers to either cite or fine BP or its contractors.
While Michaels said "theoretically" it could be an OSHA violation, he added: "We have so much to do" that his agency is not automatically issuing citations because it wants to work with BP to come into compliance voluntarily.
"Our interest right now is protecting workers right now and into the future and that's where we're putting our energies," he said.
Worker safety advocates have urged OSHA to be more aggressive in pressing BP to improve its training of workers and its handling of their concerns.
"There is a clear-cut need to further ramp up responder protection efforts in training and monitoring for workers who may be placed in harm's way — whether from the natural elements, from direct oil contact, or from the inherently dangerous nature of the cleanup process," said Hughes, who just returned from a two-day tour of vessel, shoreline and beach cleanup operations in Southern Louisiana.
Last week, OSHA's Michaels complained in an internal memo obtained by McClatchy about "significant deficiencies" in BP's handling of the safety of oil spill workers and asked the Coast Guard to help pressure the company to address a litany of concerns.
The memo revealed the Obama administration's growing concerns about potential health and safety problems posed by the oil spill and its inability to force BP to respond to them.
Michaels said since then, the Coast Guard has talked to BP about the concerns. "We're very pleased that the message has been conveyed to them and they've been very responsive," said Michaels.
BP said it has deployed 22,000 workers to combat the spill, which experts now estimate has spewed more than 46 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. At this point, much of the oil remains offshore.
Stephen J. Herman, a lawyer for two workers who became ill in a separate incident, said his clients have not heard anything from official sources about the possible cause of what made them ill.
"It is important to note that these workers really do want to do the job," he said. "They need the money. And, they really want to do everything they can to try to help preserve not only their livelihoods, but their way of life."
Jeffrey Buchanan, senior domestic policy advisor for Oxfam America, said his organization is working along the Gulf coast and has concluded that BP and its contractors "have proven themselves incapable of protecting their workers" by providing adequate training, gear, and information.
"The federal government needs to step up their level of oversight and ensure the fishermen and communities now cleaning up BP's mess are protected," he said.
(Tish Wells also contributed to this article.)