Labor, health, tribal entities call for protecting oil spill workers

Sixteen entities representing a cross-section of fisheries and labor groups, and tribal councils, including Cordova District Fishermen United, are urging U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to amend a key rule to allow for greater protection of oil spill response workers. The rule change would require employers to record cold and flu-like symptoms among workers during oil spills and report them to OSHA.

In the case of oil spills, this has significant consequences, the fisheries and labor group said in its petition Monday that 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, they said in the petition.

OSHA does require 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, said Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist from Cordova who is also the director of Earth Island Institute’s ALERT Project. The project focuses on oil and oil-based chemicals, and communities most at risk from exposures from industrial releases or spills.

Ott said OSHA’s cold and flu exemption is untenable. 

“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,” Ott said. “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.”


Courts are continuing to dismiss hundreds of valid illness claims in lawsuits brought by workers and residents exposed to the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico due to a lack of initial exposure data — the very records OSHA currently exempts.

The group notes that court records from ongoing lawsuits related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster show that three federal agencies each recommended 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.

Signers of the petition to OSHA from Alaska in addition to Ott are: executive director of the Alaska Community Action on Toxics Pam Miller, science and executive director of the Cook Inletkeeper Sue Mauger, and executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United Jess Rude.