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With last week’s premier of the movie Deepwater Horizon, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) remembers the workers who were killed and injured in the explosion as well as the tens of thousands who worked on containment and clean up activities. NIOSH played an important role in protecting and monitoring the health and safety of the cleanup workers. Updates on some of our efforts are provided below. See the DEEPWATER HORIZON RESPONSE: Gulf of Mexico Oil Cleanup website for a full list of research projects and resources. The lessons learned and experiences gained responding to this tragedy have helped us all improve the safety and health of oil and gas workers as well as first responders and cleanup workers in the event of the next man made or natural disaster. Many of these lessons learned and tools developed as part of the response were incorporated in to the Emergency Responder Health Monitoring and Surveillance (ERHMS) system which provides guidelines and practical tools for protecting emergency responders.
The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 2010, resulted in the deaths of 11 workers and injuries to another 17 workers. In the weeks and months afterward, millions of barrels of crude oil were released into the Gulf waters from the Macondo Well. As a result, tens of thousands of workers engaged in onshore and offshore containment and cleanup activities across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas, and in the Gulf of Mexico itself. The diverse work included oil and tar ball removal from beaches, wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, oil skimming and booming near shores, burning of surface oil near the source of the oil release, surface application of dispersant by vessels and aircraft, and containment and recovery work on vessels at the release site. The nature of these activities raised concerns about potential occupational exposures to chemical and physical hazards and mental stressors. These concerns prompted an unparalleled response from agencies across Federal, state, and local governments. Some of the NIOSH efforts are summarized below.
Health Hazard Evaluation
The Deepwater Horizon oil release was an unprecedented event in the United States in many respects, requiring response work across a vast area of multiple jurisdictions and for a prolonged period of time. The type, location, and quantities of oil released; the types and quantities of dispersant used; and weather and geographical conditions differentiate this release from past oil spills. NIOSH received two requests for Health Hazard Evaluations (HHE) from BP management. BP wanted to assess exposures and health effects among responders to the oil release. Teams of NIOSH industrial hygienists, medical officers, and other occupational health specialists conducted on‐site investigations at locations throughout the Gulf region to collect quantitative and qualitative data on worker exposures, health symptoms, work practices and procedures, and work organization.
The final report, Health Hazard Evaluation of Deepwater Horizon Response Workers, provides detailed information on the activities and findings. Initial reports of serious illnesses (requiring hospitalization) attributed to dispersant exposure were not confirmed. Air sampling at specific sites and during specific activities consistently revealed non-detectable to low levels of individual chemicals. Nonetheless, mixed low‐level exposures to crude oil, dispersant, and other chemicals; heat stress, psychosocial strains, ergonomic and other injury hazards; and pre‐existing personal health risk factors all may have contributed to health symptoms reported by response workers. Nonspecific symptoms such as headache, eye and respiratory irritation, and fatigue were more commonly reported by responders who self‐reported exposures to oil, dispersants, or other chemicals compared to workers who self‐reported no such exposures. While no one hazard or exposure can explain the increased reporting of such symptoms among this group of workers, eliminating or reducing all such hazards in as comprehensive a manner as possible will decrease the likelihood of health effects during future responses such as this.
One NIOSH effort involved “rostering” containment and cleanup workers. NIOSH developed this prospective roster to: (1) to create a record of those who participated in the Deepwater Horizon Response activities, (2) to collect information on the nature of their projected work assignments and the training they received, and (3) to create a mechanism for contacting them about possible work-related symptoms of illness or injury during and after the response, as needed. Rostering of response workers is an essential tool for real-time health surveillance, depending on the length of the response, and for potential long-term follow-up of health status. NIOSH and other response organizations realized the value of rostering as a lesson learned from the World Trade Center emergency response. To our knowledge, this is the first time that a prospective, centralized roster of workers has ever been developed for an event of this magnitude.
The NIOSH Deepwater Horizon Response rostering effort involved involved close to 100 NIOSH personnel. As a result, more than 55,000 workers were rostered. NIOSH established a policy that allowed qualified researchers to recruit individuals included in the roster for participation in investigative studies. For detailed information, see the NIOSH Deepwater Horizon Rostering Summary Report. The following observations on rostering can be drawn from the Deepwater Horizon response event:
- Begin rostering immediately and integrate it into response activities as soon as possible, to ensure that all workers are included. Consider state and local public health departments as possible resources for this activity.
- Have a ready-to-use roster form that can be quickly adapted and cleared for use.
- Direct the rostering program through the incident command structure/unified area command, most likely the logistics section.
- Explore the feasibility of incorporating rostering into existing response activities (e.g., personnel accountability and training programs), to improve efficiency of the activity.
- Develop mechanisms to encourage and facilitate employer participation, include rostering as part of predeployment planning for likely responders.
- Standardize interim reports to the incident command structure and participating organizations, to maximize utility of the collected information.
Chemical Dispersant Research
Oil dispersants typically comprise of a mixture of solvents and surfactants that break down floating oil to micrometer-sized droplets and prevent it from reaching the shorelines. To address concerns about the short- and long-term adverse health effects of exposure to crude oil, weathered-oil products, and oil dispersants among cleanup workers, NIOSH undertook laboratory studies to determine whether oil dispersants (COREXIT®EC9500A) pose a neurological risk.
New research suggests that short-term exposure to COREXIT®EC9500A reduces the levels of specific proteins in the neuronal synapses and elicits an imbalance in the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, changes that are typically associated with mood disorders, depression, lack of coordination, short-term memory loss etc. Additional laboratory studies are needed to understand and predict potential long-term neurological effects of such exposures.
Oil and Gas Research at NIOSH
The Deepwater Horizon explosion provided a reminder of the hazards involved in offshore drilling. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, in a report issued earlier this year, noted that “The Macondo blowout has illuminated the potential severity of consequences from a single offshore incident and has served as a catalyst for the critical importance of examining major accident risk management in the offshore drilling industry.” At the same time, it is important to recognize that such single, multiple-fatality incidents do not account for the majority of offshore work-related fatalities. Efforts to prevent serious and fatal injury in oil and gas extraction must address safety across the board. The NIOSH oil and gas research program is aimed at improving safety and health for workers in this field and has published articles and blogs on our website.
In a 2013 article, NIOSH reported that the U.S. oil and gas extraction industry (onshore and offshore, combined) had a collective fatality rate seven times higher than for all U.S. workers (27.1 versus 3.8 deaths per 100,000 workers) during 2003–2010. During this time period, a total of 128 fatalities occurred in activities related to offshore oil and gas operations in the United States, an average of 16 per year. All but one fatality occurred in Gulf of Mexico operations. Transportation events were the leading cause of fatalities (65 [51%]), followed by contact with objects or equipment (21 [16%]), fires and explosions (17 [13%]), and exposure to harmful substances/environments (16 [13%]). Seventy-five percent of transportation events were associated with aircraft, all of which were helicopters (49 fatalities). See Fatal Injuries in Offshore Oil and Gas Operations — United States, 2003–2010.
To reduce fatalities in the offshore oil and gas industry, employers should ensure that the most stringent applicable transportation safety guidelines are followed. The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) has developed guidelines for aircraft operations in the oil and gas industry that exceed FAA safety regulations.
As the Deepwater Horizon movie will remind us all of this tragedy, NIOSH wants the public to know that we are working tirelessly every day to make all workplaces, including those in oil and gas and disaster sites, safer workplaces.
CDR Lisa Delaney, MS, CIH, is Associate Director for the NIOSH Emergency Preparedness and Response.