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New safety training begins for Gulf cleanup workers

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

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Oil cleanup workers on offshore vessels will begin receiving longer and more thorough safety trainings Tuesday, fulfilling a pledge by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to improve training after it acknowledged, as we reported, that the previous course was inadequate for these workers.

The enhanced training will increase in length from four to eight hours, and will include new topics such as exposure to weathered oil, dispersant safety and proper decontamination methods. "You will be exposed to potential hazards from oil byproducts, dispersants and degreasers," warns a slide from the training's added section on chemical exposure.

The trainings will be provided by a contractor hired by BP and will take place on a barge in the Gulf of Mexico, according to labor department spokesman Jason Surbey. It will be offered to offshore workers in the Vessels of Opportunity program – which employs local boat operators and crews in cleanup activities – but not to shoreline responders who are cleaning the beaches.

As we've reported, the start of the new training had been delayed for several weeks following OSHA's pledge to improve the course. In early July, OSHA stated that it was working with BP on the third draft of the new curriculum, and suggested that previous versions submitted by the company had been unsatisfactory. The curriculum of the new course – you can read the facilitator's guide and the training slides in their entirety – reflects the outcome of these discussions.

Franklin Mirer, a professor of toxicology at Hunter College who had told us that the previous trainings were inadequate, said that the curriculum represented a step in the right direction.

"This training course is substantially more extensive and has undergone public review and addresses chemical exposures," Mirer said.

However, Mirer added that he remained concerned about chemical exposures that were below OSHA's Permissible Exposure Limits but still hazardous to workers' health. The facilitator's guide for the new training advises workers that respirators are required when "a substance in the air is higher than the PEL," but does not state that they might be necessary in any other situations.

As we've reported, OSHA director David Michaels has acknowledged that the exposure limits are "outrageously out of date" and inadequate to keep workers safe.

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The facilitator's guide for the section on the dispersant Corexit also states that the product is safe without acknowledging the concerns that have been raised about its health effects. "The idea is to dispel any myths about this chemical and its potential to harm them [cleanup workers]," states the trainer's guide.

Mirer said that to fully evaluate the training, it would be necessary to observe the classes and how they were conducted. But he emphasized that it was rare for these types of trainings to receive the level of government and public scrutiny that have been applied to date, and that substantial progress had been made.

"There was an empty glass and now it's partially full," he told us.

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