BERKELEY, CA (February 13, 2023) — Today, in an act of solidarity, labor, commercial fishermen, environmental health advocates, and the National Tribal Emergency Management Council and the Northwest Tribal Emergency Management Council petitioned the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to change a key rule that would provide greater protection to oil-spill-response workers.
The rule change would require employers to record cold- and flu-like symptoms among workers during oil spills and to report the illnesses in real time to OSHA. In the case of oil spills, this has significant consequences. Oil spill exposures are associated with a characteristic set of initial symptoms that mimic cold- and flu-like symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment of symptoms of toxic exposure is critical to reduce or prevent chronic illnesses and cancers, studies have found.
OSHA requires accurate recording and reporting of any work-related illness or injury; however, in January 2001, the agency exempted the common cold and flu from its recordkeeping requirements. These symptoms are now known to be early indicators of toxic exposures which, in turn, are now causally linked to slow-developing chronic respiratory, cardiovascular, and neurological illnesses.
This petition is significant because OSHA rules are at the crux of protecting worker health, and consequently community health, since oil workers can unwittingly expose their families to toxic chemicals that cling to their clothes and skin. Large oil spills often involve a workforce, contracted by the spiller, of local fishermen and residents who are unaware of the hazardous nature of the response and who often come from low-income, marginalized communities. This petition pulls together the various advocates for these communities on what was traditionally seen as separate issues — Native tribes, worker health, environmental justice, socio-economic status and oil spills – but are really all rooted in society’s decision to sacrifice certain members for corporate profits.
“OSHA’s cold and flu exemption is untenable,” said Dr. Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist and director of Earth Island Institute’s ALERT Project, the lead signatory on the petition. “The current science from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster found that oil spill exposures of weeks and months can lead to long-term spill-related illnesses and cancers in workers and residents. BP’s work force during the 2010 response consisted largely of local fishermen and residents, many of whom are sick, dying or already dead. The death toll from the BP Deepwater Horizon started with eleven workers when the rig exploded. It’s now likely in the thousands — and it includes children.”
Frank Stuart ran a company of oil spill response workers in Louisiana, which was one of the first contracted by BP to work on the spill. In February 2018, he fell suddenly ill, and doctors had no idea what was causing his symptoms. Stuart died just three months later of acute myeloid leukemia, a rare blood cancer linked with exposure to oil spills, just one day before the eighth memorial of the BP oil disaster.
“BP never told us or the doctors that the oil spill exposures were potentially lethal or could cause a problem eight years later,” said Stuart’s wife Sheree Kerner. “Accurate recordkeeping by OSHA could have led to early diagnosis and treatment to prevent Frank’s death. The failure of OSHA to have employers like BP keep accurate records and report early symptoms during oil spills makes Frank’s story everyone’s story.”
Terry Odom, a former BP contract safety officer during the 2010 disaster, can confirm that workers were not informed of potential health risks.
“Health risks were downplayed during the training,” said Odom. “Contract workers were not trained to recognize symptoms of oil-chemical exposures. Most, including me, were not even screened for pre-existing illnesses,” said Odom.
Odom was recently diagnosed with asthma, microcytosis (a blood disorder), and chronic kidney disease. She did not have any of these conditions before her oil spill work in Pensacola, Florida. These illnesses are associated with oil spill exposures, and Odom has a current case against BP for her illnesses.
She said, “I hope my participation in this petition will help lead to meaningful change to better protect workers in future oil spills.”
Right now, courts continue to dismiss hundreds of valid illness claims in lawsuits brought by workers and residents exposed to the 2010 British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Claims are being denied due to lack of initial exposure data — the very records that OSHA currently exempts. Meanwhile, non-enforceable actions taken by the National Response Team, including OSHA, to better protect oil spill workers from long-term harm are also not working.
For example, during the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, court records from ongoing lawsuits reveal that three federal agencies each recommended that BP conduct biomonitoring of workers. BP refused even though the agencies insisted that BP’s voluntary air quality monitoring was insufficient to assess worker exposure. Courts ruled that BP did not have a “duty” to conduct biomonitoring. The National Response Team continues to recommend biomonitoring, but this does not impose a duty on private (or public) employers to do so. The petition, however, aims to create a biomonitoring duty with respect to oil spill exposure symptoms that mimic cold- and flu-like symptoms.
“This is why we are requesting OSHA to change the rules,” said Dr. Ott. “The federal and state agencies are likely to follow their own recommendations during the next natural disaster, but the private employers have the option to refuse, as BP did during the Deepwater Horizon response. Records of early symptoms are critical to proving long-term harm. Workers need this information and so do policy decision-makers. The law needs to change.”
Riki Ott, ALERT Project, 206-853-2855, firstname.lastname@example.org