Responder Safety in the Face of Disaster: Lessons Learned from the BP Oil Spill

July 22, 2011
A paper published in the July issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine examines NIOSH’s role in protecting first responders following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in an effort to improve health monitoring and surveillance for workers responding to disasters.

The article, “Protecting Workers in Large-Scale Emergency Responses: NIOSH Experience in the Deepwater Horizon Response,” describes NIOSH’s activities following the disaster, including its cooperative efforts with the Unified Area Command, OSHA and other federal, state and local partners who worked to protect response workers. It also offers recommendations for the future. This analysis also builds on lessons learned from the 9/11 terrorist attack and Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Margaret M. Kitt and colleagues noted in the article that in the wake of the BP disaster, NIOSH played a key role in protecting first responders by providing technical guidance and communicating real-time information on the hazards.

"The Deepwater Horizon response contributed greatly to the occupational safety and health community’s body of knowledge and provides critical insight to both future response events and our every day obligation to protect the nation's workers," said Kitt and coauthors.

NIOSH Takes Action

Following the disaster, NIOSH developed a roster of more than 55,000 Deepwater Horizon responders. This roster included information on training received, response activities and contact information for follow-up. Monitoring and surveillance included health hazard evaluations (HHEs) for all categories of responders.

The information gathered in the HHEs was posted on the NIOSH Web site to inform ongoing worker safety efforts. Key issues for the future include inconsistent Internet access at the response sites and the need to make technical information understandable to responders.

NIOSH also was involved in evaluating and testing for potentially toxic exposures, including the oil dispersants used in cleanup activities. Recommendations for the future include increasing the use of personal protective gear, steps to manage heat stress management, approaches to beach cleaning and reporting of injuries and potential hazards.

“Leveraging past experience and lessons learned is a critical step in improving our response to similar events in the future,” said NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D. “This article helps to facilitate a dialogue between NIOSH and partners in the government, industry, labor and academia on ways to improve the overall response to both natural and man-made disasters.”

The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine is the official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

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