Sunday, May 30, 2010

Emergency vs. Post-Emergency

I've just gotten word that I'm going to be deployed as an Environmental Technician out of Houma, Louisiana. I have to drive over there tomorrow after I get a private course in CPR and First Aid. I can't work without a current certification. I also had a drug screening and had to give permission to an agency to do a full background check. I am thoroughly vetted. Now mind you I still haven't met anybody that works for this company. It's all been email and text messages and some phone calls. (which AT&T consistently disconnected, every one. A rant for another day.) I can imagine that in my first meeting I will be stringently warned not to say anything publicly about the project. As such I better use this opportunity to convey all I have learned up to this point about this disaster, just in case anybody cares.

Here we have a picture I took in Mobile, Al from Telegraph Road, north of downtown in an industrial area. I was out there buying a brim for my hard hat and some new safety glasses. In the center of the picture you see that shorter building with the decorative top -- that's the Renaissance Riverside. BP has taken over that whole hotel. I understand they have a command center in an office building next door. After my class at the hotel we were told go somewhere else to kill time while we waited for orders. BP didn't want us hanging around their nice hotel. Ruins the ambiance I suppose.

The class consisted of a person running through 107 Powerpoint slides of the worst possible design. This is the presentation that every single individual -- employee, contractor, volunteer, everybody who has anything to do with this clean up effort has to see. It is called the Mississippi Canyon 252 Post Emergency Spilled Oil Cleanup. You watch this Powerpoint presentation, you take a 20 question true/false quiz, you get a certificate allowing you to clean up JUST this spill. No other ones. 

First you may be asking yourself, "Post Emergency? WTF POST! Fucking oil is still shooting out like the whole earth is having abdominal cramps and voiding 3 billion years worth of carbon sequestration through that one goddam 2 foot riser pipe!

Yes, post emergency. According to the official terminology, it's only an emergency within a 20 mile radius of the source of the fresh oil. As soon as the oil is 20 miles away it is called "weathered oil" and is declared to be safe to be handled by anybody willing to do it. Keep in mind this is hazardous fucking waste. It could be outgassing carcinogens like benzene, toluene or who the hell knows what's even in it after they spray it with dispersants. (Corexit. That's the brand name. >:-/ ) The Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) has standards about what people are allowed to breathe and there are BP employees out there measuring the air, according to my sources. And there are 3 or 4 OSHA people going around checking on it. That's 3 or 4 for 35,000 workers. Now it's true that a lot of these workers are working in places that don't have any oil yet. They're placing boom over in Florida and counting boom every morning to find where boats drove over it during the night and messed it up. Just to be ready when the oil gets there. 

I have no data but a very strong feeling that the vast majority of people working directly with these hazardous materials have no health insurance. I know I don't. I had to provide proof of my automobile insurance, but nobody cares that I might get sick from this work and have no way to pay for hospitalization or doctor's bills. If I go in any area where the fumes are bad enough to exceed the OSHA limits then they will pay for me to go to a doctor and get a chest x-ray and other tests to establish a baseline of my health. I am all for that because if I get sick later I have proof that I was fine before. That's an OSHA rule. Go OSHA!

So back to this presentation. It was bad. It had photos of somebody wearing a life vest sideways, but no caption saying "This is the wrong way to wear this." The fonts were too small and kept changing. There were typos. But worst it just said random stuff with no follow up. Like "Some medication can make you less able to cope with heat and sun." OK, like what medicine? And what do you do about it? Another slide said "Some hazards you may encounter: Wildlife, sharp debris, snakes, mosquitoes." But it doesn't have a picture of a water moccasin or any instructions about not freaking out.

I got a chance to encounter this treasure again in the online version after I got home because I had to repeat the class for a different employer. I can share some of the quality with you here.
The fun starts right away with the registration. Do No Select? What? I was instructed by the email I got to enter "Environmental Professional." Well, closest thing I see to that is "Environmental Profressional." I'll take it! Profressional :-) That's going in my list of most amusing typos. I guarantee that by the end of a 12 hour day taking water samples in a 100% humidity and 110°F heat none of us are going to be feeling particularly fresh.

Here's some of the official description:


I was never able to get past the course outline. It wouldn't show me the Powerpoint slides again. I skipped ahead to the test. Or I tried. I guess BP didn't think to specify that their online training developer should use technology valid since the turn of the century.
Seriously? IE or Netscape Navigator? This screen shot was in Firefox. Chrome and Safari wouldn't even get this far. I had to run a virtual machine with Windows XP and IE to get to the test. I was so freaked  out by seeing that goddam green rolling hills default desktop picture I forgot to take screen shots of the test. I have pretty good recall though so I typed them up from memory. I took this test twice and it had different but very similar questions both times. The capitalizations in the online version were pretty classy. Like this: "It is ok to put your hands where they will get PINCHED." It slowed down my typing and my stream of consciousness to decide what to put in all caps though, so here's the first grade version, not the kindergarten version I saw. It's a true/false test. Try it yourself and then scroll down for the answers.

1. It is ok to put your hands where they will get pinched.
2. Wearing your lifejacket at all times will keep you from drowning.
3. Alcohol can dehydrate you and can cause off-duty accidents.
4. You should always have a buddy to look out for you.
5. You are your own Safety Representative.
6. This course covers all the hazards you could encounter.
7. The weathered oil may be sticky.
8. This course is a full time certification for other cleanup projects.
9. Safety zones are to prevent spreading oil contamination.
10. You should leave your tools in designated areas to prevent contamination.
11. You should wash your hands before you eat or smoke.
12. It is ok to leave your life vest unbuckled if it is hot.
13. You will only be in areas with no oil or weathered oil.
14. You should try to rescue any oiled birds you find.
15. You should know who your supervisor is and how to contact them.
16. Disposing of all Personal Protective Equipment such as Tyvek suits and gloves in plastic bags prevents spreading oil contamination.
17. Soda pop is as good as water for keeping you hydrated.
18. Hallucinations are a sign of heat exhaustion.
19. You should use your legs to pick up heavy objects, not your back.
20. Some medications can make you more susceptible to heat.

How do you think you did? Worried about trick questions? Here it is again with the answers and explanations. I got 100% both times because I have learned the test taking trick. Use no prior knowledge when considering the answer. Think only of what they told you in the training.

1. It is ok to put your hands where they will get pinched.
False

2. Wearing your lifejacket at all times will keep you from drowning.
True! The guy whose test I graded on Thursday missed this. He said, "but if I'm walking around in the woods....." Yeah, he thinks too much. He shouldn't work for BP.

3. Alcohol can dehydrate you and can cause off-duty accidents.
True. "A hangover will give you the heat exhaust."

4. You should always have a buddy to look out for you.
True. Awww.

5. You are your own Safety Representative.
True. Yes. Yes I am.

6. This course covers all the hazards you could encounter.
False. CYA, BP, CYA.

7. The weathered oil may be sticky.
True. They also said it may be "not pourable."

8. This course is a full time certification for other cleanup projects.
False. You have to look at another powerpoint presentation if you want to go pick up tarballs from some other "leak."

9. Safety zones are to prevent spreading oil contamination.
True. They're also to prevent people from going in places without the right Personal Protective Equipment. PPE is HUGE on an oil spill. They say PPE like 12 year old girls say BFF. Try to use PPE in a sentence today. "Honey, this casserole is ready. Can you hand me some PPE so I can get it out of the oven?"

10. You should leave your tools in designated areas to prevent contamination.
True.

11. You should wash your hands before you eat or smoke.
True. The weathered oil isn't supposed to be flammable, but you still don't want to get it on your lips.

12. It is ok to leave your life vest unbuckled if it is hot.
False. Sorry. Buckle up for safety! Our trainer told a story about three guys that went overboard the other day when a tug laying boom tipped over their skiff. Fortunately they were in a place with no oil yet. Oh, and boat captains can wear whatever they want as long as they're on their own boat. No life vest, no boots, whatever.

13. You will only be in areas with no oil or weathered oil.
True. If only it could be in areas under 90°F with a nice land breeze and plenty of shade.

14. You should try to rescue any oiled birds you find.
False. People with this certificate aren't allowed to touch anything alive. You should report live oily animals to somebody and if it's dead, to somebody else. But you aren't allowed to touch it to be sure it's dead. They had a picture in the powerpoint of a pointy beaked bird covered in oil and a caption that you can be killed. I don't doubt it either. I bet an oily anhinga could stab his needle sharp beak through your eyeball all the way to your medula oblongata.

15. You should know who your supervisor is and how to contact them.
True. I don't remember this being in the presentation but I have a feel for this by now....

16. Disposing of all Personal Protective Equipment such as Tyvek suits and gloves in plastic bags prevents spreading oil contamination.
True. Some people in our class missed this one because it's overly simplistic. You also need to take a shower and do a bunch of other stuff. No thinking on the quiz.

17. Soda pop is as good as water for keeping you hydrated.
False. They had a color chart for what your urine should look like. No warning for this situation though....

18. Hallucinations are a sign of heat exhaustion.
True. No seriously. It's right before heat stroke.

19. You should use your legs to pick up heavy objects, not your back.
True. I never do this.

20. Some medications can make you more susceptible to heat.
True. But they aren't telling you which ones or what to do about it.

So now you have a feel for the level of worker competency BP is going for on this project. Soon enough I'll find out what it is really like out in the field. I hope to be able to give you reports of life in general on the bayou, but I expect I will have to sign some non-disclosure forms when I get there.

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