Michaels on Gulf Cleanup Workers: We Were Trying Not to Kill Them

May 25, 2011
The greatest threat facing the Gulf Coast clean up workers following the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil leak wasn’t the murky, oily water or various safety hazards, says OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels. It was the summer weather found in the Gulf of Mexico.

There were tens of thousands of workers in the area during June, July and August of last year, he said, and 35-40 OSHA personnel conducting air monitoring and requesting abatement for safety hazards at the 21 staging areas in the Gulf. Workers were wearing Tyvek suits, impermeable gloves, work boots and hard hats, remembers Michaels, in 100 degree F heat and high humidity.

Many of them were not native to the area and were not used to working in such steamy conditions. In addition, “These workers were not chosen for their physical fitness,” Michaels says.

OSHA asked employers to adhere to hydration and rest cycles proposed for U.S. military personnel in the Middle East, to ensure that workers did not suffer from heat-related illness.

Members of Congress periodically would visit the Gulf area and would question why, when there was so much work to be done, workers were “sitting around,” seemingly doing nothing.

Michaels’ response, he says, was “because we’re trying not to kill them.”

Despite all of the precautions taken, 1,000 workers out of an estimated 60,000 suffered from some type of heat-related incident, but there were no heat-related fatalities. Without the precautions and the presence of the OSHA personnel to monitor working conditions, Michaels says there was the potential for many workers to become seriously ill or die during the Gulf cleanup efforts.

OSHA has launched a campaign to prevent heat-related illness in outdoor workers. OSHA also is partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on weather service alerts. NOAA’s Heat Watch page now includes worker safety precautions when extreme heat alerts are issued. You can find OSHA’s information page about preventing heat-related illness at http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatillness/index.html.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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