According to a June 20 article in The New York Times, “Hundreds of workers hired by BP subcontractors to help with the cleanup of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are complaining that they traveled long distances to assist in the effort — only to be told that their jobs had been given to local residents.”
Governors favor local workers
Apparently contractors and subcontractors started out hiring anyone they could get with related experience and skills, but as time wore on the governors of the affected states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida) began pressing to favor local job seekers over imported workers–even if the workers had already signed contracts.
“In Florida, 86 percent of cleanup workers are now Floridians; in Alabama, 82 percent are from that state; and in Mississippi, 83 percent of the cleanup work force are residents. Those figures have nearly doubled in the last month, BP records show.
“ ‘You hate to take away anyone’s livelihood,’ said Dan Turner, a spokesman for Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi. ‘But the locals here have already had their livelihood taken away, through no fault of their own.’
“Subcontractors say they must follow the desires of BP and the governors if they hope to keep their contracts.”
The cleanup crews now total about “25,000 workers [who] have been hired by more than 100 subcontractors” to work both on shore and in the Gulf. Ultimately, though, the out-of-state workers who have been–or will be–turned away may turn out to be the lucky ones.
(Note: estimates of current workforce levels range from 24,000 to 27,000 among various reports.)
Damaged cleanup workers may face bureaucratic maze
Sure, everybody needs the work and the paychecks, but the regulatory infrastructure is such a mish-mash that workers who get sick or injured may find themselves in bureaucratic purgatory.
This is from the Washington NBC affiliate, dated June 16: “An army of 24,000 temporary workers have swarmed the Gulf Coast to help clean up the mess from the massive BP oil spill. But it is far from clear who is responsible for ensuring the safety and long-term health of those doing the critical and often dangerous grunt work.
“Already workers have been injured, some hospitalized.
“Workers are covered by a patchwork of federal, state and local agencies and regulations. The government only last week announced how worker safety efforts in the Gulf would be coordinated, more than 50 days after the rig explosion.”
And here’s what a June 22 Reuters article says: “Workers struggling in the heat to clean up oil from the the ruptured BP (BP.L) well in the Gulf of Mexico risk short-term lung, liver, and kidney damage from fumes, experts said on Tuesday.”
The experts appeared at an Institute of Medicine hearing in New Orleans, reporting that “[s]tudies of the health effects after seven supertanker spills showed that clean-up crews had suffered short-term health problems from volatile organic compounds.”
” ‘You really are talking about a triangle of heat, chemical exposure, and then the behavior changes that you see as a result,’ said Linda McCauley, dean of Emory University’s School of Nursing in Atlanta.”
Images of 9/11 and Exxon Valdez remediation
The NBCWashington report says long-term lawsuits are to be expected, and makes comparisons to the 9/11 rescue workers (whose recent settlement we covered here) and the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.
“Based on past disasters, workers could become tangled in years of litigation if they suffer any injuries or other ill health effects while cleaning up the Gulf region.
“ ‘We’ve been through this before,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., referring to workers who helped clean up the World Trade Center site after the 9/11 attacks.
“Nadler said the government told workers at the site that they, too, were safe, but today ‘thousands of people are sick or dying.’
“ ‘I’ve been fighting for years to get proper health care and monitoring for the thousands of people who are sick today who worked in the World Trade Center,’ said Nadler, who sponsored a bill to provide health care and compensation to 9/11 first responders and survivors of the tragedy. ‘Now I see the whole thing reproducing itself in the Gulf.’ “
As mentioned in the article, the Valdez and BP tragedies are similar not only in regards to oil and coastal waters but also because a corporate entity is ultimately responsible.
Governor wary of ‘committee approach’
However, what’s not clear is who is in charge of running the cleanup show, and hence which agency is overseeing workers’ safety issues and health-related claims: ” . . . even within the government there is confusion about who is in charge of protecting the 24,000 individuals engaged in the Gulf cleanup, including nearly 19,000 contract workers dispersed offshore and along the coast lines of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.”
For example, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley reportedly complained to CNN about a “committee approach” among government agencies that complicates the process, using an example involving a state wildlife agency’s “push to clean beaches [that] met with resistance from federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration over limits on how many hours cleanup crews could work.”
“Adding to the complication is the fact that OSHA typically oversees safety on land, while the Coast Guard deals with worker safety issues on inspected vessels. That means smaller boats that are not inspected by the Coast Guard would come under OSHA,” says the NBCWashington report.
Although OSHA and the Coast Guard have signed an agreement of understanding, OSHA “is stretched extremely thin, with only has 25 staffers in the four-state spill region, according to Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of Labor for OSHA.”
Safety and health incidents already have occurred, and “Barab said there have been safety lapses on the part of BP but added: ‘Every time we’ve asked them to clean up their act, they’ve done that.’ ”
Regardless of that vote of confidence, keeping track of the numbers is difficult, even at this relatively early stage of the cleanup.
Some workers have already been treated
For example, this June 15 account in The Kansas City Star says, “Although Louisiana state records indicate that at least 74 oil spill workers have complained of becoming sick after exposure to pollutants, BP’s own official recordkeeping notes just two such incidents.”
After a couple of short grafs, the account continues: “The gap between the state data and BP’s reflects the difficulty in tracking the health effects of [toxic compounds] from the oil spill. It also raises questions about whether the federal government can rely on BP to determine whether conditions remain safe for the more than 27,000 workers now engaged in cleaning up the worst oil spill in the nation’s history.”
The NBCWashington piece quotes a Houston attorney thusly: “Workers are protected by ‘a hodgepodge of regulations,’ said Matthew Shaffer, an attorney with Houston-based Schechter, McElwee, Shaffer & Harris, a firm that handles maritime-related personal injury cases, who said he has already heard from injured oil spill workers.
“He expects to see many workers come down with illnesses stemming from on-the-job conditions. ‘No one’s really in charge, and a lot is left to employers or the industry to police themselves,’ he said.”
BP spokesman Ray Viator indicated the company is working with OSHA and another agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in monitoring air quality and the need for protective gear such as respirators (“not needed, yet” seems to be the consensus so far).
The NBCWashington piece also poses this question: “So what will happen to BP workers if they do get injured or suffer long-term illnesses?”
Spokesman: workers comp first, then BP to pay
The answer, says Viator, is that “workers’ compensation is provided through the contract workers’ employers.
“As for claims beyond that, he said, ‘BP has agreed to reimburse its contractors for legitimate costs relating to certain worker injuries sustained during their course and scope of employment with the contractor companies.’
“That’s not enough, said [Congressman] Nadler. ‘Unlike at the World Trade Center, you have a private party who’s responsible and who should be covering the costs for all of this,’ he said.
“But he said he was more concerned ‘not with claims, but preventing thousands of people from getting sick.’ “
Apparently, the bottom line is this: We’ve only begun the long, intense cleanup of the Gulf region–and once it’s over, we’ll have a lengthy process of mopping up the human damage.
Have you, a friend or a loved one been injured on the job? Whether you’re merely seeking answers about your rights or believe a lawsuit may be necessary, be sure to seek counsel with attorneys trained and experienced in workers’ compensation. Here’s some resources: