Cleaning the Gulf

In the same way the demand for respirators challenged manufacturers after H1N1 influenza was declared a pandemic, glove and apparel orders soared once the spill began.

One of the big unknowns about this year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill is how well the workers doing coastal and wildlife cleanup -- some 47,500 people including National Guard personnel, as of mid-June -- are protected from potentially harmful exposures to the oil.

This U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class Kelly Parker photo shows Coast Guard personnel and civilian contractors setting protective boom in place June 16 on Raccoon Island, a protected bird breeding sanctuary about 20 miles south of Cocodrie, La. OSHA deployed 20 to 25 compliance officers daily to affected areas in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida and, concerned about heat stress as summer settled in, said it had worked with BP to set work/rest requirements based on heat and relative humidity. The OSHA online page offering guides, news, and resources about the spill response said a key concern is potential skin irritation and dermatitis from workers' getting weathered oil on their skin or in their eyes. Here, OSHA recommends oil-resistant gloves, boots, coveralls, and safety glasses.

NIOSH by June 16 had enrolled 14,374 response workers in a voluntary online roster so it can contact them later about possible spill-related symptoms of illness or injury. In addition, NACOSH, the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, formed an oil spill response workgroup June 8 to advise OSHA about PPE for cleanup workers, conducting long-term health evaluations of workers exposed to oil and other chemicals, and other issues.

In May, NIOSH posted an analysis of two dispersants being used to break up floating oil and explained the potential respiratory irritation and skin irritation effects of the solvents they contain. One of the dispersants contains 2-butoxyethanol, for which OSHA's Permissible Exposure Limit for airborne exposures is 50 parts per million for up to a full work shift and NIOSH's Recommended Exposure Limit is 5 ppm. In the document, NIOSH recommended nitrile gloves and protective eyewear for workers who mix, load, or spray dispersants and thorough washing with soap and water of hands or other body parts exposed to them. (

Nalco Company of Naperville, Ill., makes the dispersants. They are "a safe, effective, and critical tool in mitigating additional damage to the Gulf," the company reiterated June 17. Nalco's chief technology officer, Dr. Mani Ramesh, cited EPA tests of water along the Louisiana coast and noted EPA had published the ingredients of the COREXIT dispersant online. Nalco agreed to provide the dispersant percent formulation to Louisiana health and environmental protection officials and will provide it under the same terms to officials in other affected states, he said. "The use of the dispersant has had no impact on marine life. These latest tests underscore previous findings that show COREXIT rapidly biodegrades and does not bio-accumulate," Ramesh said. "The oil continues to be the primary hazard in the Gulf -- for workers, wildlife, and vegetation. Dispersants have prevented more oil from reaching our shorelines."

Some reports from the cleanup zone and some members of the safety and health community question whether cleanup workers were wearing gloves and respirators to prevent the airborne and dermal exposures considered most significant for this work.

"The [oil] fumes are pretty harsh," said Donald F. Groce, a Showa Best Glove Inc. technical product specialist and research chemist who previously worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on chemical toxicology studies. With such a large number of cleanup workers and volunteers with varied backgrounds participating, some may have limited training or chemical background, he said. (At this writing, BP was requiring all spill responders and volunteers to complete four hours of safety training, either online or at training classes taking place in the region. PEC/Premier Safety Management, Inc. of Mandeville, La., is the company providing the training; e-mail [email protected] to enroll.)

Once Again, Demand Outstrips Supply
Nitrile, neoprene, and PVC-coated gloves are appropriate for oil cleanup work, but latex gloves would be rapidly destroyed by oil, Groce said in an interview.

In the same way the demand for respirators challenged manufacturers after H1N1 influenza was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, glove and apparel orders soared once the spill began. "This is just a crisis no one was really prepared for, with the economy being what it has been and [PPE] inventories down. It's not going away any time soon. It really creates a huge need, a constant need," Groce said. "We're hearing from them every day. We've stepped up production of all the products we feel will be needed. We've started new lines on all of them."

"I'm glad we have what they need," he added. "It's certainly helping the protective clothing industry. It really is a tragedy. Pandemics and tragedies you don't want to happen at all, but they help our industry.

"I would say the pandemic never really happened, but this is happening. And it has the potential to be even larger."

Menlo, Ga.-based Showa Best Glove responded to the demand by making its customer service and shipping operations available on a 24-hour basis, and it established an oil spill hotline for emergency orders: 888-819-6980.

"We can't give one person our entire inventory when we've got so many loyal customers out there who need our help," Groce said. "I think everybody's having the same issues: They just don't have the products. And especially the people who outsource [glove manufacturing], it takes a long time to get word out to your suppliers, who may be in Asia."

He said it simply isn't economically feasible to assemble a huge PPE stockpile for such mega events, even though two have occurred in consecutive years. "Taxwise and carrying all that overhead, it's a real balancing act. I don't think many could afford to maintain such capacity," said Groce.

Gulf Coast residents and visitors who have nothing to do with the cleanup might come in contact with the oil, as well. Everyone who could be in that position would be wise to take precautions, Groce said. "I think they should get some nitrile gloves," he advised. "I think everybody needs to protect themselves."

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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