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June 2, 2010

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Worker safety plays second fiddle to environmental threat

A US federation of health and safety committees has voiced its concern that the loss of 11 lives following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-rig explosion in April has been forgotten amid the subsequent environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The deaths of the 11 men, as well as the injuries to dozens of other workers, have been consigned to mere footnotes as the environmental and economic impact of the huge oil spill gained centre stage in the media storm, reports The Minnesota Independent.

“The worker safety issue has been completely lost in this story,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “It’s one of the biggest industrial disasters in recent history, and yet Congress [views it] the same as the public: they’re not seeing it as a worker safety issue.”

In the US, 646 oil and gas workers were killed between 2003 and 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2008, the oil and gas industry accounted for more than 10 per cent of all workplace deaths resulting from fires and explosions.

The newspaper points out that one of the reasons for the lack of focus on worker safety could be jurisdictional. Responsibility for offshore safety is split between the Minerals Management Service (MMS) and the Coast Guard, but neither agency falls under the remit of the US health and safety watchdog, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), while critics of the arrangement argue that both agencies’ focus on occupational safety is diluted among their other responsibilities.

The MMS has recently been divided into three parts, one of which will focus exclusively on safety and environmental protection relating to all offshore energy activities.

Meanwhile, OSHA chief David Michaels has highlighted BP’s failure to rectify problems at two of its refineries following inspections by the agency, and has accused the oil giant of putting profits ahead of safety.

Speaking to ABC News last week, he said: “I don’t understand why BP doesn’t make these changes that we require, but it may be a simple calculation. They see the cost of fixing the refineries in a way that would satisfy OSHA as being too expensive, so they’re going to wait until more people are killed, or more explosions occur – then they’ll hope for the best and make the changes later. I can’t explain it any other way.”

In October last year, OSHA issued the company with fines totalling $87m (£53m) for failing to correct potential hazards to workers at its Texas City refinery.

There have also been reports that workers involved in cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill have been hospitalised with headaches, nausea and vomiting. Last week, George Miller, chair of the Education and Labor Committee wrote to OSHA seeking assurances that safeguards are in place to protect the health of such workers.

Miller wrote: “Much is still unknown about the long-term health effects of chemicals utilised in this clean-up. Especially, given the health and safety track record of [BP], heightened vigilance is necessary to ensure that every person aiding the clean-up is provided the necessary information, training and equipment to protect themselves.”

In the UK, a new advisory group is meeting today (2 June) to review the UK’s oil-spill prevention and response practices. Commented chair of the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group (OSPRAG), Mark McAllister: “The regulatory regime in the UK continental shelf (UKCS) requires companies to put in place robust checks to minimise the risk of oil spills. We have not had a blowout in the last 20 years of operations, and the oil spills we do have tend to be on a very small scale.

“However, we must always ensure we put the safety of our employees first and minimise any adverse environmental impacts of our operations, so in light of the recent Gulf of Mexico incident, it is only right that we take a fresh look at our practices in the UK for oil-spill prevention and response.

“The review conducted under OSPRAG will be comprehensive and will help ensure that the arrangements in the UK continue to be fit for purpose.”

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