Pressure is building on BP, OSHA and others coordinating the Gulf oil cleanup to supply workers with respirators. OSHA maintains that respiratory protection is needed only where air monitoring shows a hazard, and only for certain types of work. But now there’s a collection of environmental and activist groups gathering support for a simple message: “Tell President Obama to demand that BP stop blocking clean-up workers from using life-saving respirators.”
It isn’t clear whether there are any industrial hygienists in the “BP Makes Me Sick Coalition,” but that may not matter as the political pressure builds. The coalition’s website is collecting online signatures, and citing persistent respiratory problems among workers from the World Trade Center pile as a reason to take action. Their goal is to force the government to make BP allow any worker who wants to wear a respirator to do so, and provide the proper equipment and training.
The NIOSH/OSHA guidance document sets a higher standard for use of respiratory protection:
- A decision to use respiratory protection should be based on the best available qualitative information using the expert opinion method and on the best available comprehensive quantitative information about the type and level of exposure to toxic chemical and physical agents by the inhalational route.
Under OSHA regulations, an employer may allow voluntary use of respirators even when there is no airborne hazard identified, as long as the respirator use itself doesn’t create a hazard. Given the large number of workers involved in the cleanup and the uncertainty about their training and medical condition, BP’s caution in insisting on by-the-book respiratory protection is understandable, but may not be sustainable in a highly charged media and political environment.
No respiratory health issues are listed in the NIOSH analysis of BP injury and illness data from April 23- June 6. These reports show predictable incidents: cuts and abrasions to the hand and fingers lead the injury tally, and heat stress is identified as the main health problem.
Suppliers of respiratory protection understand the need for medical monitoring, training and individual fit testing, as well as selection of the proper respirator for the hazard. Anyone providing respirators to workers needs to make sure they’re getting them from sources that can supply this technical assistance. The ISEA Buyers Guide is an excellent source for manufacturer contacts. In addition, it’s vital to insist that workers be fit tested, and actually wear the respirators when required.