Is OSHA on the job in the Gulf?

As progressives demand respirators for cleanup workers, the agency says breathing problems so far are heat-related

Published July 8, 2010 6:33PM (EDT)

Within hours of its launch, the online petition at BPMakesMeSick.Com demanding that BP "allow every clean-up worker who wants to wear respiratory protective equipment to do so" had already racked up more than 16000 signers and was continuing to swell its ranks at a pretty fast clip, courtesy of, among other things, viral Facebook and Twitter campaigns.

And why not? Media reports that BP has been dilatory in providing respirators are unconscionable when one considers the kind of cleanup activities some workers are involved in. Check out this description from the indeispensible of how free-floating oil in the Gulf is being burned off.

But burning is fraught with complications. The crude that litters the Gulf is highly emulsified and depleted in hydrogen, which means it doesn't burn readily. In many cases, it's easier to skim it off the surface. For the oil to sustain a fire, it needs to be condensed to several millimeters' thickness -- a task accomplished by retrofitted fishing vessels that work in pairs, dragging a 500-foot line of fireproof boom between them in a narrow U-shaped arc.

On any given day, as many as 10 fire teams are on the water, corralling oil and setting it alight. As the fishing vessels move in tandem at a speed of less than 1 mph, oil at the water's surface pools at the apex of the U. When roughly one-third of the area encased by the boom -- anywhere from 500 to 1,000 barrels of oil in volume -- is filled, an igniter boat releases uses a flare to set fire to a plastic container filled with gelled fuel, which floats toward the pooled oil and eventually burns it.

Corralling and burning oil seems like a job in which respirators would be useful. If BP has been denying cleanup workers such equipment, that's appalling.

But how many workers have actually gotten sick from air-borne pollutants during their cleanup work? Michael Whitney, a blogger at the progressive site FireDogLake, posted an interesting interview earlier today with Jordan Barab, the current Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Health and Safety,

According to Barab, "symptoms of nausea, vomiting, nose bleeds, and headaches" cited by cleanup workers so far have "almost all have been heat related."

"We're really looking, but haven't found anything significant in the chemical samplings. We're looking for people getting sick, but it tends to be overwhelmingly heat related," Barab told Firedoglake earlier this week.

In late June, OSHA issued guidelines for worker health and safety in the Gulf, including the limited use of respirators for workers around exposed crude oil near the source of the oil gusher. This came after more than 28,000 Firedoglake activists called on BP to provide respirators for cleanup workers...

As for BP's cooperation on worker safety, OSHA is satisfied -- much more than when OSHA's head, David Michaels, complained of BP's lack of effort on the topic in late May. At this point, we're getting along fairly well with BP. Even though a lot of what we're asking them to do we don't have standards for, BP is pretty much doing what [we] want them to do," said Barab. "When they're not, with a little pressure, they do it."

Now why should we believe anything Jordan Barab says? Isn't he just another part of the Obama/BP corporate police state? Keith Olberman reports that Obama doesn't care about worker safety, so why should we expect his OSHA bureaucrats to?

According to his OSHA bio, in between stints in OSHA sandwiched around the Bush administration, Barab "worked on workplace safety issues for the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board from 2002 to 2007 [and] he was a Health and Safety Specialist for the AFL-CIO from 2001 to 2002." He also blogged about workplace safety issues for none other than FireDogLake and at his own blog, Confined Space. His farewell post makes him sound like exactly the kind of person you would want overseeing worker safety in the Gulf.

Over the past four years, I've written more than 2,800 posts here at Confined Space. My original goal was not just to educate people about what is happening in American workplaces, but also to put workplace safety and health into a political context. You won't read in any newspapers that if the 12 deaths at Sago last year, or the 15 deaths at the BP Texas City refinery the year before had been the only workplace fatalities on those days, those would have been good days in the American workplace. More than 15 workers are killed every day on the job in this country and a worker becomes injured or ill on the job every 2.5 seconds. The overwhelming majority of deaths, injuries and illnesses could have been easily prevented had the employers simply provided a safe workplace and complied with well-recognized OSHA regulations or other safe practices.

And you'll never learn from the evening news that we have more fish and wildlife inspectors than OSHA inspectors, or that the penalties from a chemical release that kills fish is higher than a chemical release that kills a worker. Not many are aware that workers are often afraid to complain about health and safety hazards or file a complaint with OSHA. Almost no one understands that OSHA inspections are so infrequent and penalties for endangering workers are so insignificant that there is almost no disincentive for employers to break the law. Employers are almost never criminally prosecuted for killing workers even when they knew they were violating OSHA standards.

I think we've got the right guy at OSHA now -- and he wouldn't be there if Obama hadn't beaten McCain. That's no excuse to slacken the pressure on either the Obama administration or BP on issues of worker safety, but maybe, just maybe, there's some reason to believe that the Gulf oil spill is not another 9/11 or Katrina, and that government may actually be striving to work in the people's interest.

UPDATE: And the pressure increases! Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., has released a letter sent to OSHA requesting detailed information on how the agency is safeguarding workers in the Gulf.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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