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Gulf Oil Spill Workers Hospitalized, Restraining Order Sought

Jun 1, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

Last week, several fishermen working to cleanup the Deepwater Horizon oil spill were hospitalized. The workers, who had been working on boats off the Louisiana coast, complained of dizziness, headaches and nausea.

Such symptoms are typical when oil vapors are inhaled. But according to CNN, Tony Heyward, CEO of BP, had his own explanation for the workers’ illnesses – food poisoning. However, an expert in food borne illnesses told CNN that the symptoms reported by the workers – including shortness of breath and nosebleeds – were not typical of food poisoning.

According to the Associated Press, a total of seven workers who were cleaning up oil in Breton Sound, southeast of New Orleans, had become ill on Wednesday. As a result, 125 commercial boats working the cleanup there were ordered to leave the area.

A spokesperson for West Jefferson Medical Center told The Associated Press that the workers’ symptoms were believed to be the result of chemical irritation and dehydration. Some of the workers told doctors that they thought chemical dispersants used to break up the spill might have caused their symptoms. The workers have since been released from the hospital.

CNN is reporting that one of the workers has filed a temporary restraining order in federal court against BP. John Wunstell Jr., a commercial shrimper, wants the oil giant to give the workers masks and not harass those who publicly voice their health concerns. It also requests that BP refrain from “altering, testing or destroying clothing or any other evidence or potential evidence” when workers become ill.

According to his affidavit, Wunstell started experiencing severe headaches and nasal irritation on May 24. Over the next few days, he also developed nosebleeds, an upset stomach, and aches. He was airlifted to West Jefferson Medical Center Wednesday, where he was stripped of all clothing and “washed with water and several showers” before being allowed into the hospital. In his affidavit, Wunstell also claims BP confiscated his clothing, and he was told it would not be returned.

According to CNN, the president of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association has also accused BP of threatening to fire fisherman – most of whom are unemployed because of the spill – from cleanup work if they complain about health problems. In some cases, workers have been threatened with firing if they wear masks, he said.

CNN also reported that fisherman it contacted did not want to speak publicly, with some expressing fears that they could lose their jobs with BP.

A BP spokesperson told CNN that the company has not provided masks or other protective gear to workers, and that its air quality testing has “thus far not found situations where there are air quality concerns that would require face masks.” However, the official insisted that workers could wear masks if they wanted to.

While BP seems confident that conditions are safe, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Hospitals has warned workers to avoid skin contact, and oral cavity or nasal passage exposure to oil spill products. The agency advises cleanup workers to wear respiratory protection, gloves and boots.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also warned that the oil is harmful to human and animal health. According to the Times, the agency’s air monitoring has detected strong petroleum odors as far as 50 miles away.

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