Forty environmental groups demand Trump protect oil rig workers against coronavirus
The Deepwater Horizon explosion of 2010. In addition to facing the dangers of leaks and explosions like this one, oil rig workers now face high rates of coronavirus infections. The fossil fuel industry, a long time destroyer of the environment, has now become a major vector for the spread of the coronavirus. | Gerald Herbert/AP

WASHINGTON — Citing coronavirus outbreaks on offshore oil and gas drilling platforms worldwide—and protesting a GOP Trump regime decision to stop disclosing U.S. data in such cases—40 environmental, science and safety groups demanded four Trump government agencies take decisive action to protect offshore oil and gas industry workers.

Their demands range from industry-specific safety measures to joining the call by other organizations, notably National Nurses United, for an overall Occupational Safety and Health Administration emergency rule ordering firms nationwide to draft and implement worker anti-virus protection plans.

Not only rig workers would benefit, the groups told the Trump regime. Protecting those workers also protects onshore communities the rig workers live in, which include high proportions of people of color more at risk for the virus.

“The offshore oil industry presents a high risk for oil workers, as oil rig employees spend shifts working on site, sleeping and eating in tight quarters,” their letter says.

“Onshore oil and gas workers, particularly those living in ‘man camps’ are also at risk from close contact on the job and in quarters. Nearby communities, particularly Indigenous peoples, low income populations, and communities of color are already at higher risk of suffering from COVID-19 [the coronavirus] and often have few healthcare resources.”

“These impacts jeopardize lives, livelihoods, human health, and human rights. It is incumbent on federal regulators to investigate whether oil and gas operators are sanitizing workspaces, evacuating workplaces when necessary, and adopting strict safety protocols such as temperature checks and frequent COVID-19 testing.”

The groups sent their September 8 letter to Trump Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Interior’s bureau that oversees oil rig drilling and safety, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schulz and Loren Sweatt, the principal deputy assistant OSHA administrator and its current top official. Trump has never had a permanent OSHA administrator. Between Interior stints under GOP administrations, Bernhardt was an energy industry attorney and lobbyist.

A check of both the Centers for Disease Control and the Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 worldwide tracking site—two of the most authoritative sources on the virus and its spread—disclosed no illness or death statistics for oil and gas rig or refinery workers. CDC guidance for those employers and workers was the same as guidance for other occupations. The Labor Department’s census of occupations calculates the U.S. has 14,540 oil rig workers, out of 141,000 total in oil and gas firms.

But CDC did warn the offshore oil rig workers they might “come into contact with the virus on your job when” you are “in close contact with other workers” while traveling to and from an oil rig by boat or helicopter, “in work areas, living quarters, the galley and other common areas” and by “touching or handling common surfaces” such as doorknobs and “shared equipment” such as rig controls and tools.

So the groups, led by Public Citizen, marshaled news stories and other reports from around the world to make the case in their heavily footnoted letter that the four agencies should act now to protect not just the rig and refinery workers, but also community members onshore. Those protections should be mandates, not just recommendations, their letter said.

Trump has reportedly declared oil and gas rig workers “essential.” He’s sent other “essential” workers, notably meatpacking plant workers, back to their jobs without protection against the virus.

Media reports “detailed a series of outbreaks among offshore workers. In May, Shell Oil was forced to airlift nine workers from a Gulf of Mexico rig for COVID-19 testing and treatment, with five workers testing positive. Workers at a BP oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico have also tested positive. ‘It’s scary,’ one worker told NBC News. ‘You’re in close confinement. It’s like a cruise ship except you’re not going anywhere.’”

Other examples came from Latin America, Africa, Norway, and the Albertan tar sands region, which led to coronavirus outbreaks elsewhere in Canada. Pemex, the government-owned Mexican oil company, has recorded 202 dead workers and five dead contractors, the letter noted. And as of July 10, 3% of Brazilian offshore oil workers—some 1,400 overall—had tested positive for the virus.

There would have been more reports from the U.S., their letter said, had the Coast Guard not stopped sending in U.S. oil and gas rig data, turning the task over to the CDC.

“In April, after disclosing that 26 offshore oil workers had tested positive, the U.S. Coast Guard stopped reporting on the number of infected workers, telling Argus Media that COVID-19 data reporting was the responsibility of” the other agency.

“An industry official called failure to report such data ’short-sighted,’ arguing it would show a lack of widespread infections. These risks are compounded by EPA waivers from vital environmental and health standards granted to thousands of companies, including hundreds of oil, gas, and petrochemical operators, at the express urging of the oil and gas industries.”

The letter demands the four agencies publish COVID-19 testing and related data from the oil and gas rigs monthly, that they require the rig owners—the oil and gas drillers and companies—to develop and implement COVID-19 testing, tracing, protection, mitigation, prevention, and response plans, and that the agencies “regularly report” the data they get.

They also want OSHA to “clarify and tighten” its guidance for firms that report COVID-19 cases so if at least two workers test positive on a rig or at a “man camp,” the exposures are treated as “work-related” making the workers eligible for workers’ comp or other aid.

“Similar to how the meatpacking industry’s crowded conditions led to massive spikes, the offshore and onshore oil and gas industry has been a vector for the spread of COVID-19, compounding the other health and environmental dangers posed by fossil fuels,” the 40 groups said in their joint statement.

“Big Oil shouldn’t be allowed to hide coronavirus infections the same way it has hidden the impacts of burning fossil fuels on the climate,” Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said in a statement. “How widespread is COVID-19 on drilling platforms and in ‘man camps?’

“What risks are oil and gas companies imposing on their workers? The federal government must demand reporting, as a basic first step to protect the health and lives of oil and gas workers.”

“It’s no surprise the fossil fuel industry, the chief driver of the climate crisis, is also a vector of COVID infection around the world. The public has a right to know what oil and gas companies are doing to protect their workers and the communities endangered by industry practices,” added Nikki Reisch, climate and energy director for the Center for International Environmental Law.

“COVID-19 outbreaks on oil rigs, like fossil-fueled wildfires and hurricanes, make clear that the oil and gas industry poses an existential threat, particularly to Black, Brown and Indigenous communities disproportionately at risk.”

Lukas Ross of Friends of the Earth linked the lack of data on the threat to the riggers to the drive by Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to prevent lawsuits against firms by workers, or customers, whom the companies exposed to the virus.

McConnell’s demand, at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce and other corporate lobbies, is one big reason Congress has yet to pass a new coronavirus economic aid package.

“Corporate liability waivers are just the next phase of a Trump polluter bailout,” said Ross. “Giving polluters a free pass when their negligence kills should be a non-starter.”

Besides Public Citizen and Friends of the Earth, other signers of the letter to the Trump agencies included the Institute for Policy Studies, the Progressive Democrats of America, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Green Latinos, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Another nurses group, the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, also signed. NNU, which has yet to do, has led the charge among U.S. unions for a commitment to the Green New Deal and the phased-out elimination of U.S. reliance on fossil fuels, which produce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.