First Responders’ Safety—Lessons from the BP Oil Spill

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In the middle of a disaster, the last people you may think of as needing to be protected are the first responders. After all, they’re there to save and protect the rest of us, right? But workers who respond to emergencies, such as police, firefighters and EMTs, are also at risk.

A recent article published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine looked at the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and how the safety of those who responded to the emergency was safeguarded.

After the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010, tens of thousands of workers responded to contain and clean up the aftermath. These workers were deployed by many response organizations from various federal, state and local agencies, as well as private businesses, contractors and volunteer organizations. They were geographically spread throughout the region in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and were engaged in various potentially hazardous activities. Such circumstances presented significant challenges to those who were responsible for protecting the workers’ health and safety.

Here’s a look at what the article had to say about first responder safety, especially in large-scale disasters.

Oil Spill Response

In the wake of 9/11, an interagency group developed a draft document entitled Emergency Responder Health Monitoring and Surveillance (ERHMS). The objective of the ERHMS document was to help ensure that:

  • Only medically cleared, trained and properly equipped personnel are selected for deployment in emergencies
  • Their work environment and health is effectively monitored and tracked throughout the event
  • Provisions are made for post-event health monitoring and surveillance when indicated.

NIOSH took the lead as to worker safety in responding to the Gulf disaster and put into practice for the first time some of the recommendations outlined in the draft ERHMS document. For example, it:

  • Rostered workers
  • Conducted health hazard evaluations
  • Provided technical guidance and communication/educational materials
  • Conducted health surveillance activities
  • Performed toxicity testing on samples of the oil dispersant and the crude oil itself.

Key Conclusions & Recommendations

Some of the key conclusions and recommendations in the article as to the effectiveness of NIOSH’s efforts and first responder safety in general:

  • Emergency response plans should be flexible and include generic tools developed in advance of a disaster to streamline the response and prevent missteps.
  • To ensure that all workers responding to an emergency are included in the roster, have roster forms prepared in advance and available in the languages most common to the workforce.
  • Take steps to ensure that health and safety information gets to workers in a timely manner, especially when they may not have Internet access and in circumstances when handing out flyers or the like isn’t practical. For example, broadcast information over local radio stations and post it in common areas, such as dining tents.
  • Try to standardize data collection and safety information posting among the various employers and organizations that may be involved in response efforts.
  • There’s a need for the development of adaptable standardized surveillance instruments in advance of a response to better track occupational health outcomes during disasters.
  • The psychological impact of disasters on the health of first responders should be incorporated into surveillance and health monitoring.
  • Based on clear, pre-event scientific criteria, the need for longer-term health studies should be assessed early in the course of the event by a panel of independent scientists. Initial criteria should then be periodically revisited because worker job activities, safety hazards, exposures and response events may change significantly during the course of the emergency.

For more information on responding to emergencies in your workplace, go the OHS Insider’s Emergency Response & Preparedness Compliance Center.