Memo: BP deficient in handling worker safety

WASHINGTON — Federal regulators complained in a scathing internal memo about "significant deficiencies" in BP's handling of the safety of oil spill workers and asked the Coast Guard to help pressure the company to address a litany of concerns.

The memo, written by a Labor Department official earlier this week and obtained by McClatchy, reveals the Obama administration's growing concerns about potential health and safety problems posed by the oil spill and its inability to force BP to respond to them.

BP said it's deployed 22,000 workers to combat the spill, which experts now estimate has spewed 37 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. At this point, much of the oil remains offshore.

David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health who wrote the memo, raised the concerns on Tuesday, the day before seven oil spill workers on boats off the coast of Louisiana were hospitalized after they experienced nausea, dizziness and headaches.

Late Friday, the disaster response team sent four more workers to the hospital by helicopter, including two with chest pains.

In his memo to Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, Michaels said his agency has witnessed numerous problems at several work sites and staging areas through the Gulf Coast region.

"The organizational systems that BP currently has in place, particularly those related to worker safety and health training, protective equipment, and site monitoring, are not adequate for the current situation or the projected increase in clean-up operations," Michaels said in the memo.

"I want to stress that these are not isolated problems," he continued. "They appear to be indicative of a general systemic failure on BP's part, to ensure the safety and health of those responding to this disaster."

Michaels added that BP "has also not been forthcoming with basic, but critical, safety and health information on injuries and exposures."

Michaels raised the alarm about BP as his own agency was coming under fire for not being aggressive enough in monitoring the company or the contractors who are providing oil spill cleanup training.

Graham MacEwen, a spokesman for BP, maintained that his company is being responsive to any problems as they develop.

"We consider safety a No. 1 priority," he said. "We will continue to try to improve our safety record."

He said that BP also was ensuring that cleanup workers are getting "very rigorous training," adding that he wasn't aware of any systemic problems being raised by the Obama administration.

"Whenever we see any problems, we're moving very quickly to resolve them," he said.

Michaels, however, raised several significant concerns in his memo that he said weren't being addressed, including:

* Lack of sufficient control over work sites. As recently as May 20, he said, the agency found more than 800 workers at one of the Biloxi, Miss., sites without the required training.

* Difficulty in obtaining adequate and timely data from BP on injuries and illness, chemical sampling, monitoring data and training materials.

* Concerns that BP's manager of workplace safety "does not appear to operate with the full support of the company, nor does he seem to have the authority necessary for the job which he has been tasked."

"We strongly suggest that BP place someone in this position who has the authority and the ability to make changes expediently in order to address the safety and health of cleanup workers."

* BP not addressing concerns about heat stroke. "There continue to be multiple heat-related incidents each day, some of which have been serious."

Michaels said that if BP didn't clean up its act, his agency would need to use its "authority to move into enforcement mode," which could include court action or fines.

Meanwhile, as BP continued a hydraulic arm-wrestle with its renegade well, President Obama toured Louisiana's soiled beaches Friday and vowed to take responsibility for solving the oil spill crisis.

"I am the president and the buck stops with me," he said during a televised beachfront gathering of Gulf Coast governors, senators and local officials in Grand Isle, La.

He said the government would hold BP legally and financially responsible for the damage.

Obama's visit, on a humid, nearly windless day, was his second to the Gulf since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 rig workers and triggered the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.

Nearly 50 miles offshore, BP struggled to overwhelm the geyser of oil pushing up its well by pumping heavy drilling fluid and junk materials into the well at high speed and under high pressure. BP officials said they had made progress but would be unable to judge the ultimate success of the operation before Sunday.