Oil Spill Response Resources: Key Safety and Health Topics

Key Safety and Health Topics

Symptoms of Exposure

Workers are urged to report any symptoms they associate with their response work to their employer, physician, poison control center, state or local health department of a local health facility. As part of a comprehensive worker safety and health program there should be a system for reporting symptoms, near-misses, injuries and illnesses. These reports should be analyzed to assess real-time trends so that actions can be taken to prevent similar incidents.

Symptoms reported from excessive exposure to crude oil or dispersants commonly include the following:

  • eye, nose and throat irritation
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • upset stomach
  • cough or shortness of breath

NIOSH/OSHA Interim Guidance: Medical Care, Reporting, and Recording

Heat Stress

Deepwater Horizon Response workers are at very serious risk for developing heat stress which:

  • can cause heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and fainting.
  • can increase the risk of injuries from sweaty palms, fogged-up safety eyewear, and dizziness.
  • should be considered in the selection of protective clothing and other personal protective equipment.

Workers at greater risk of heat stress include those who:

  • are 65 years of age or older
  • are overweight have heart disease or high blood pressure
  • take medications that may be affected by extreme heat

A heat stress program should include the following elements:

  • Information for workers about the effects of heat stress, and how to recognize heat-related illness symptoms and prevent heat-induced illness;
  • Acclimatization of new workers or workers returning to work from absences of three or more days;
  • Specific procedures to be followed for heat-related emergency situations;
  • Provisions to administer first aid immediately to workers displaying symptoms of heat-related illness;
  • Addressing and reducing physical demands on workers;
  • Using relief workers or assigning extra workers for physically demanding jobs;
  • Providing cool water to workers—avoiding drinks with caffeine, alcohol, or large amounts of sugar;
  • Establishing specific work-rest regimens based on the physical demands and environmental heat-related conditions;
  • Scheduling work cycles to coincide with cooler temperatures in the day or night;
  • Providing cool and shady areas for use during rest breaks; and
  • Monitoring workers through a buddy system for signs of heat stress.


NIOSH/OSHA Interim Guidance: Heat Stress Prevention


Disaster response workers often work longer shifts and more consecutive shifts than the typical 40-hour work week. Working longer hours may increase the risk of work injuries and accidents and can contribute to poor health. Management plans should be in place to minimize fatigue risks, recognize hazards, and provide regular opportunities for worker rest and recovery.

Consider the following general guidelines to prevent fatigue in workers:

  • Regular Rest: Establish at least 10 consecutive hours per day of protected time off-duty in order to obtain 7-8 hours of sleep.
  • Rest Breaks: Frequent brief rest breaks (e.g., every 1-2 hours) during demanding work are more effective against fatigue than a few longer breaks. Allow longer breaks for meals.
  • Shift Lengths: Five 8-hour shifts or four 10-hour shifts per week are usually tolerable. Depending on the workload, twelve-hour days may be tolerable with more frequent interspersed rest days. Shorter shifts (e.g. 8 hours), during the evening and night, are better tolerated than longer shifts.
  • Workload: Examine work demands with respect to shift length. Twelve-hour shifts are more tolerable for “lighter” tasks (e.g., desk work).
  • Rest Days: Plan one or two full days of rest to follow five consecutive 8-hour shifts or four 10-hour shifts. Consider two rest days after three consecutive 12-hour shifts.


NIOSH/OSHA Interim Guidance: Fatigue Prevention


Workers and volunteers may experience stress and fatigue when they respond to environmental disasters, both natural and human-caused. Deepwater Horizon Response workers and volunteers are at risk of feeling uncomfortable levels of stress from what mental health professionals refer to as a traumatic incident. The term traumatic is used because of an unexpected and troubling change in the natural order of things, such as the untimely death or injury of oil-covered wildlife and the impact on fishing communities and the environment. It is important that responders monitor their health and well-being during their response activity period, and even months after their response work has ended.

Specific recommendations to help manage responder stress and fatigue during and after a response (in addition to tips for parents, teachers, and response workers) can be found at:

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. The use of effective engineering and administrative controls, and other personal protective equipment should be implemented before the use of respirators for worker protection is considered.


NIOSH Interim Respiratory Protection Recommendations for Deepwater Horizon Response Workers

NIOSH/OSHA Interim Guidance: Respiratory Protection Recommendations for:

Page last reviewed: January 25, 2012