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Oil Spill Worker Safety and Health


The potential for an emergency situation to occur during an oil spill cleanup is large. To work in cleanup, you must be trained on the hazards of your job in a language that you understand. You must be trained before you begin oil spill response and cleanup work.

If an emergency occurs, notify your supervisor, safety officer or incident commander about all injuries and hazardous material exposures sustained at the site. Your employer's Health and Safety Plan will describe the emergency procedures to be followed.

  • Ask what first aid support is available during your briefing; be sure you understand where it is located.
  • For minor injuries or health concerns, go to:
    • first aid
    • local hospitals or clinics
    • EMT or nurse station
  • For serious emergencies, call your direct supervisor or 911.
  • Know your exact location.
  • Keep an injured worker in a safe location until assistance arrives.
  • Don't move an injured worker unless safety is at risk.
  • Use the "buddy system" to aid and help each other.

Protecting Yourself

It's important that you work in a proactive manner with safety always being top priority. Be sure to do the following:

  • Watch for lacerations, slips, falls, and trips, especially while working on oil-slick rocks.
  • Be careful walking over and handling debris that is covered with water in order to avoid the risks associated withslips, trips and falls.
  • Remain current with tetanus vaccination.
  • Get the Hepatitis B vaccine series if you will be performing direct patient care or otherwise expect to have contact with bodily fluids.
  • Avoid contact with stagnant water.
  • Wear rubber type steel toe/shank footwear to protect your feet from injury and from oil exposure.
  • Wear oil-resistant gloves when in contact with oil and oil waste
  • Wear outer durable gloves when handling debris.
  • Use hearing protection in noisy environments.
  • Use decontamination procedures set by your employer before eating or drinking, using the toilet during the workday, and do a full decontamination, including a shower if available, at the end of shift.
  • Wash and sanitize immediately if exposed to toxic substances.
  • Know your medicines, allergies, and blood type.
  • Do not stand in or come in contact with unknown liquids or substances.
  • If in doubt, contact your supervisor!

For more safety information regarding oil spill cleanups, please click here for an article from our partner, HSE Press Journal.


The Hazards of Heat Stress

One of the most serious health hazards facing cleanup workers is heat stress. The risk from the heat and humidity is exacerbated by the long days worked and the protective equipment required.

Heat injury is caused when the body’s ability to deal with heat is overwhelmed. Heat stress varies in severity but is common, serious and can be deadly. The good news is that it can be prevented.

Heat rash, also known as prickly heat, is skin irritation caused by sweat that does not evaporate from the skin. Heat rash is the most common problem in hot work environments. Heat rash usually appears on the neck, upper chest, in the groin, under the breasts and in elbow creases. The best treatment for heat rash is to provide a cooler, less humid work environment. Keep skin dry, use powders, not creams or ointments.

Heat exhaustion is the body's response to loss of water and salt from heavy sweating. Signs include headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, thirst, and heavy sweating. Make sure that someone stays with the worker until help arrives. If symptoms worsen, call 911 and get help immediately.

Heat stroke, the most serious form of heat-related illness, happens when the body becomes unable to regulate its core temperature. Sweating stops and the body can no longer rid itself of excess heat. When heat stroke occurs, the body temperature can rise above 104 °F within 10 to 15 minutes. Signs include confusion, loss of consciousness, and seizures. "Heat stroke is a medical emergency that may result in death! Call 911 immediately.

Heat Syncope is a fainting or near fainting episode or dizziness that usually occurs with prolonged standing or sudden rising from a sitting or lying position. Factors that may contribute to heat syncope include dehydration. Workers with heat syncope should sit or lie down in a cool place when they begin to feel symptoms, and slowly drink water or electrolyte drink. If they have fainted, then call 911, notify their supervisor and make arrangements for evaluation by EMS or medical personnel to eliminate other causes.

Heat cramps are caused by the loss of body salts and fluid during sweating. Low salt levels in muscles cause painful cramps. Tired muscles—those used for performing the work—are usually the ones most affected by cramps. Cramps may occur during or after working hours. Workers with heat cramps should replace fluid loss by drinking water and/or carbohydrate-electrolyte replacement liquids (e.g. sports drinks) every 15 to 20 minutes.


Factors Increasing the Heat Stress

Where does the heat come from that causes our bodies to overheat?

  • high temperature and humidity
  • direct sun exposure (with no shade) or extreme heat
  • limited air movement (no breeze or wind)
  • physical exertion (generates heat)
  • wearing protective clothing and equipment

Working outdoors, especially in hot and humid weather, being in the sun, and doing hard physical work is something we have to take seriously.

Preventing Heat Injury

It is most important that you take steps to help prevent heat stress and injury by doing the following:

  • Know signs/symptoms of heat illnesses; monitor yourself; watch out for your co-workers.
  • Wear a hat to block out direct sun.
  • Use cooling fans/air-conditioning for rest breaks and rest regularly in shaded areas.
  • Wear lightweight, light colored, loose-fitting clothes.
  • Wear protective clothing that actively cools the body.

Work and Rest Cycles

The work/rest cycle is one of several protective controls to decrease overall heat stress. It may not be mandatory if other controls such as air-conditioned rest areas or ice vests are in use and are sufficient to keep worker’s body temperatures normal for the individual. Work/Rest cycles assume the resting place available to workers is shaded, but otherwise at the same ambient temperature as the work area.

During the rest period workers should remove protective clothing not required in the rest area to enhance their opportunity to cool. Important points:

  • Your employer must set work and rest cycles.
  • Work itself generates heat.
  • Beach cleanup workers are currently working 20 minutes and resting for 40 minutes.
  • When possible, work during the cooler parts of the day and rest mid-day.

Adjust to the Heat

  • If you are new to hot environments, begin work gradually.
  • Start at about half of what you would usually do.
  • Gradually increase how long you work and how hard you work over the first five workdays.
  • If you are away from the heat for more than a week, start over.
  • You will still need rest breaks every hour in hot weather, even when you are fully adjusted.

Other Risk Factors

Make sure you take extra care if you have any additional risk factors:

  • diabetes, heart disease, obesity, pregnancy, any acute viral illness
  • lack of recent exposure to heat
  • some medications (including antihistamines, diuretics, some other medications – ask your health care provider or pharmacist)
  • fatigue
  • avoid drugs, especially cocaine and amphetamines

Fluid Intake

  • Drink plenty of cool water – drink before you are thirsty. Sports drinks are a good idea because they help to replace electrolytes. When you sweat, you lose minerals as well as water, and your body requires those minerals to work properly.
  • Drink small amounts often – a 6-ounce cup every 20 minutes, more depending on work load and heat.
  • BUT - don’t drink more than a quart (32 ounces) in an hour (you can also get sick from too much water). In general, don’t drink more than 12 quarts a day.
  • Eat a normal diet. Frequent small meals are best. Sports drinks contain salts (which you lose as you sweat), so if you’re not able to eat regularly, they are a good alternative.
  • Avoid alcohol or caffeinated drinks.

Urine Output Color

The color of your urine can help you tell if you are drinking enough water.


Experiencing fatigue during an oil spill cleanup can also be a factor in your overall health. Make sure you pace yourself, especially when working long shifts and many days in a row. Here are some other important factors to remember:

  • Watch out for each other. Use the buddy system on your crews, especially in remote locations. Coworkers may not notice a hazard nearby or behind.
  • Be conscious of those around you. Responders who are exhausted, feeling stressed or even temporarily distracted may place themselves and others at risk.
  • Maintain as normal a schedule as possible. Regular eating and sleeping are crucial.
  • Make sure that you drink plenty of fluids such as water or sports drinks.

Respiratory Protection

Respiratory protection must be worn whenever you are working in a hazardous atmosphere. The appropriate respirator will depend on the contaminant(s) to which you are exposed and the protection factor (PF) required. Here are a few examples:

Single-strap dust masks (figure 1) must not be used to protect from hazardous atmospheres. However, they may be useful in providing comfort from pollen or other allergens.

Half-face respirators (figure 2) can be used for protection against most vapors, acid gases, dust or welding fumes. Cartridges/filters must match contaminant(s) and be changed periodically.

Full-face respirators (figure 3) are more protective than half-face respirators. They can also be used for protection against most vapors, acid gases, dust or welding fumes. The face-shield protects face and eyes from irritants and contaminants. Cartridges/filters must match contaminant(s) and be changed periodically.

A Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (figure 4) is used for entry and escape from atmospheres that are considered immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) or oxygen deficient. They use their own air tank.




Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

Good luck!

1. During oil spill cleanup operations, workers should not drink more than a _____in an hour.

2. When heat stroke occurs, the body temperature can rise _____ within 10 to 15 minutes.

3. Which of the following has symptoms that include confusion, loss of consciousness, and seizures?

4. Which of the following is the most serious form of heat-related illness that happens when the body becomes unable to regulate its core temperature?

5. The best treatment for _____ is to provide a cooler, less humid work environment. Keep skin dry, use powders, not creams or ointments.

Have a great day!

Important! You will receive an "error" message unless all questions are answered.