As questions swirled about the safety of cleanup workers responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Unified Area Command released a statement saying that its “highest priority is worker safety,” and that in many cases, workers do not need protective respirators.

Based on air monitoring data collected to date, exposures to hydrocarbons, dispersants and other hazardous chemicals are below established occupational exposure limits. In most situations that have been examined to date, mandatory wearing of respirators is not required.

That said, respirators will be provided to response workers engaged in the source control activities and for vessels involved in burning crude oil. These respirators are provided as part of a comprehensive respiratory protection program. Respirators only need to be worn when air-monitoring results indicate an elevated level of air contaminants, or when professional judgment determines there is potential exposure, or when workers are reporting health effects or symptoms.

Last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health jointly released updated worker safety guidelines.

Former OSHA inspector Eileen Senn points out that the guidelines are ambiguous in some places, and that little is known about what happens when crude oil and chemicals mix.

There are no exposure limits established to evaluate the mix of toxic compounds and physical stressors experienced by these workers.

It remains to be seen if the NIOSH/OSHA recommendations will translate into more Gulf workers receiving respirators. The biggest opportunity lies in the recommendation that respirators be supplied for “uncharacterized” chemical exposures. I believe that most exposures in the Gulf are uncharacterized because they are to mixtures of mixtures that have not been adequately assessed either qualitatively or quantitatively.

OSHA has drawn criticism from advocates like Gina Solomon at the National Resources Defense Council for its lack of teeth.

Many serious workplace hazards are not regulated at all by OSHA. For those that are, the regulations are both out-of-date and weak. Most notably for the situation in the Gulf, OSHA has failed to update permissible exposure limits (PELs) for toxic chemicals. The levels that are in place were largely adopted wholesale by OSHA in 1971.

In other words, those “established occupational exposure limits” mentioned in the Unified Command’s statement are out of date — a fact Commander Thad Allen acknowledged today during a conference call with reporters.

Little is known about the long-term health effects of cleaning up oil spills, because they were not studied in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill.

“We don’t know a damn thing,” said Anchorage lawyer Michael Schneider, whose firm talked with dozens of Alaska cleanup workers following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in preparation for a class-action lawsuit that never came.

In New Orleans last week, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin delivered a similar, if more subtle, message to a gathering of health experts meeting to talk about how to protect people working on the massive BP oil spill still gushing in the Gulf of Mexico.

In an evaluation (.pdf) of the cleanup in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, the Centers for Disease Control found that cigarette smoke and diesel fumes were more likely sources of toxins than weathered crude oil, but at the time of that study, the oil had been “weathered” at sea for four months, and no new oil was spilling. Older oil is less volatile, meaning it contains fewer lightweight droplets that can drift into workers’ lungs.

So far, 128 workers have reported exposure-related illnesses to the Louisiana health department. Members of the general public have reported an additional 34.

In late May, the NRDC a coalition of human rights and community groups sent a letter to OSHA and other agencies asking that workers be given respirators and other safety equipment.

Worker Safety Letter

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