Pool report: Clean up workers

From Miami Herald reporter who was allowed to attend yesterday’s pool media event:

Your pool met Lucia Bustamante, community outreach director for BP, by the Navarre Beach Pier at 7 a.m. CDT. There were no visible tar balls on the beach, though plenty of washed up sea grass. Around 7:41, Steve Hamilton, who supervises land and marine cleanup operations for Eagle SWS, one of several BP contractors in the cleanup. Eagle SWS has experience in beach cleanups “from Galveston to Maine,” Hamilton said.

We followed Hamilton in our cars to a field staging area between Navarre and Pensacola beaches, by crossover 29, east of the Portofino condominiums. This area is where workers – about 340 them working the Panhandle area with Eagle SWS – come in the morning to get their supplies and protective gear before being sent out in groups of 20 with 2 supervisors to their cleanup sites for the day. On Wednesday morning, some 60 workers had been diverted from the Navarre Beach area to Perdido Key, Hamilton said.

Crews depart at 4 a.m., 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. every morning. Some workers were sent to Destin at 5 a.m. Wednesday. Federal shoreline cleanup assessment teams (SCATs) and emergency response teams (ERTs) determine where the crews are sent out. We saw a couple dozen workers in yellow and orange vests getting onto white vans with their supplies for the day. They work in 12-hour shifts and are supposed to check in with the main BP staging area on Bayou Chico every hour with information on what has been collected. Those reports are later sent to unified command in Mobile and eventually Houma, La.

Eighty percent of the workers so far have been local hires. More get hired and trained every week, Hamilton said. They require 40 hours of training and a 3-hour site orientation before getting to work. Some supervisors are still from out of town because they need experienced, skilled people to lead the teams, Hamilton said. Eagle SWS hires its workers and requires a background check and a drug test.

There were several ATVs in the staging area, as well as a couple of U-Haul trucks storing gloves, bags, duct tape and water. We saw more than 10 pellets piled with Dasani water and several more pellets stocked with Powerade. Hamilton said they plan to bring an ice truck out to the staging area as well.

Portable toilets were also being kept in the staging area while the contractor waits for written permits to move them to sites near the cleanup crews. Their rules call for one toilet for every 10 workers and a separate toilet for female workers if there are any in the crew (and Hamilton said there are women working the beaches).

Also in the staging area are two rolloff boxes used to haul the bags full of tar away. They are not typical garbage disposal containers because they can be tightened on the sides and covered with rubberized canvas so nothing leaks out. Below the rolloffs lies plastic absorbent material in case anything does leak out. The waste in the rolloffs is eventually taken to the Springhill landfill in Campbellton, Fla.

Workers on the beach carry 6-millimeter thick environmental plastic bags known as drum liners, which are not typical garbage bags. The workers double-bag, fill the bags up to about 20 pounds and then seal the bags with duct tape. More than 20 pounds could lead to back injuries.

Workers wear the lowest level of personal protective equipment required by OSHA – level D, Hamilton said. That means: shirts with sleeves – they don’t have to be long sleeves, though Hamilton recommends them; long pants, steel-toed boots, safety glasses; and a hat – preferably with a rim as opposed to a baseball cap. They also recommend but do not require two layers of gloves, usually rubber or leather over the thin gloves doctors wear, Hamilton said.

The yellow plastic workers place over their boots is referred to as “chicken boots” because the yellow makes people look like they have chicken feet, Hamilton said. The workers have to take off that gear under their little tents on the beach so as not to track any tar onto the crossovers or boardwalks.

The next level of protection, C, would require respiratory gear, but Hamilton said he does not expect the situation in Pensacola to get bad enough to require that equipment. “We probably won’t see that here,” he said. Supervisors also provide and stress the use of sunscreen, Hamilton said, and may end up buying straw hats for all the workers to wear.

Sometimes level D protection requires a hard hat, but that is not a good idea in this situation because of the heat the crews are working in.

Hamilton said monitoring heat stress is key in cleaning efforts: “That’s a huge, huge thing,” he said. The crews use a special stopwatch-style device to measure the temperature and heat index and, based on OSHA guidelines, decide how many minutes to work and how many to break so crews can rest and drink water. They follow a color-coded system: green means workers can work for 45 minutes and rest for 15 minutes. ON the other end of the system, black means workers can work for 15 minutes and rest for at least 15 minutes before heading out again. Twice Tuesday and several times Monday, crews had to go black.

Blisters have also been an issue for workers, Hamilton said.

Hamilton said beaches are typically cleaned by hand, using manual labor, because mechanical cleanup equipment like mechanical rakes has to be cleaned periodically, slowing cleanup efforts. Thick tar could stick to a rake and clog it up after 100 yards and then require 2 hours to clean out, he said. Furthermore, workers can be mindful of turtle and bird nesting areas.

I also got a note from Branden Rathert (AM 1620):
“The thing this morning was nothing like what we were told it was going to be. Did not get to interview any workers like we were told. They also changed the meeting place and the workers never showed up so then we had to go to them at the staging area. Poorly put together.”