Oil Spill Cleanup Hazards

HSE_Press_Oil_Spill_BarryOil is pouring from a ruptured pipeline beneath the ocean, and the oil company is hiring as many people as possible, including Paul, to try and contain and clean up the oil spill.  Once Paul and the other new hires finished filling out the new hire paperwork, their new boss quickly went over safety training with the group.  The training consisted of a brief review of marine oil spill response which lasted about an hour. Their supervisor spent another hour covering marine vessel safety.  Paul and the new hires were going to serve on marine vessels and vessels of opportunity (VOO) to deploy and recover booms.  After the brief safety training review, Paul’s supervisor assigned him to a vessel and he started working. After working on the vessel for four hours, Paul was beginning to get tired and overheated. It was a very hot day and everyone was working hard to clean up the oil spill and were losing track of time. No one had taken a break.

Crews uncovered an oily boom and Paul’s boss asked him to help pressure wash it. While doing this, he started to feel light-headed. He started to lose consciousness and slipped. Paul hit his head and fell over the side of the ship and into the ocean. It took five minutes for the crew to realize what happened and to pull Paul back on board. Paul sustained a concussion and neck injury and was taken to the hospital for overnight observation. Fortunately, Paul had his life jacket on, which was the only thing that saved his life.

Preventing Accidents

Based on what we know from the scenario given above, what could Paul and his employer have done to help prevent this accident? Remember, Paul only received a couple hours of safety training before beginning his duties on board the marine vessel. However, the training should have consisted of at least 8 hours of “Marine Spilled Oil Response” and “Marine Vessel Health and Safety.” Paul’s employer also needed to do a better job of supervising him and the crew. Below are a few things that could have been done:

  • Provide rest breaks throughout the crews work shift to help control and prevent heat stress.
  • Provide break and rest areas in the shade.
  • Provide the crew with water to drink throughout their shift.
  • Train the crew on the signs of heat illness.
  • Use a buddy system.
  • Provide sunscreen to protect the crew from sunburn and sun poisoning.

Though not required, OSHA recommends employees have access to respirators when pressure washing oily booms and equipment. Paul did not have a respirator available, nor was he trained on how to use a respirator safely. The doctors examining Paul believe this was a contributing factor, along with heat stress, that caused Paul to lose consciousness and fall overboard.

Here is some important information Paul and his employer should have considered in regards to respirators:

  • When necessary, employees should wear NIOSH-approved respirators with the proper cartridges for the hazards in their work area (which may include organic vapor types). The following should be included in the employer’s Health and Safety Plan (HASP):
    • Dust masks don’t offer the necessary protection against some toxic materials, gases, and vapors.
    • Respirator cartridges need to be replaced based on a change-out schedule determined by the employer.
    • If using a full respirator, need exists for medical approval and change-out schedule, fit testing, cleaning and maintenance procedures, and training. Disposable half face with organic vapor (OV) cartridges may be used.

The above incident might not have ever occurred if Paul’s employer provided the proper training, supervision, and personal protective equipment  before he started work on the vessel.

To learn more about oil spill cleanup hazards, respirators, training, supervision, and personal protective equipment, please see the following OSHAcademy courses:

703: Introduction to OSH Training

709: Personal Protective Equipment

712:Safety Supervision and Leadership

906 Oil Spill Cleanup


OSHA, (2013), OSHA FactSheet, Current Training Requirements for the Gulf Oil Spill. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/oilspills/Basic_Training_Fact_07_02_10.pdf
OSHA, (2010), OSHA FactSheet, General Health and Safety Information for the Gulf Oil Spill. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/oilspills/deepwater-oil-spill-factsheet-ppe.html
NIEHS/OSHA, (2010), Oil Spill Cleanup Training Tool, Safety and Health Awareness for Oil Spill Cleanup Workers. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/Publications/Oil_Spill_Booklet_05.11_v4.pdf