Plans by Exxon Corp. to have hundreds of workers prying oil from the shores of remote Prince William Sound islands have company and state labor officials scrambling into new areas of industrial safety among them protecting work crews from bears.
Exxon is even considering providing an armed lookout with each work crew, officials said Tuesday.
Some workers hired for the cleanup effort have asked to take their own guns with them for protection, but company and state officials have bristled at the idea.
"There's some concern about whether you're providing much protection if you put guns in the hands of several people in the same place," said Ray Botto, an Exxon industrial safety expert working with the state to develop worker protection plans.
"We're trying to learn about bears," he said.
Bear experts with the state Department of Fish and Game, meanwhile, downplayed the risk of bear encounters on most islands in the Sound, especially if work crews are large and don't leave food on shore. No brown bears are known to inhabit islands where cleanup is being considered, and biologists said it's highly unlikely that the smaller, lessaggressive black bears coming out of hibernation would pose a threat.
"I'd be a lot more concerned about someone walking around with a weapon who doesn't know what he's doing than about bears," said Dan Timm, Fish and Game regional wildlife superintendent.
Worries about bear encounters and armed bearwatchers are among dozens of unusual safety issues being debated by company and government officials as Exxon prepares to send hundreds of workers into the Sound for work that's expected to last well into the summer.
So far, there have been no serious injuries to workers in the 21|2 weeks since the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef and spilled more than 10 million gallons of oil.
But bear encounters aside, state labor authorities said Tuesday that they are increasingly concerned about the safety of workers being hired and shipped into the Sound, and said Exxon hasn't done enough to ensure that workers won't be hurt.
"We're talking about hundreds and hundreds of workers, and logistically, there's just a lot of problems out there," said Jim Sampson, Alaska's commissioner of labor, whose agency is responsible for enforcing jobsafety laws.
"To be honest, I'm surprised there have been no serious injuries so far. . . . We want the risks abated. We need a better commitment from the company that these things are going to be done."
Jan Cool, an Exxon spokeswoman said the company was doing everything it could to minimize risks, adding, "If (Sampson) isn't happy, you can bet we're going to be responding."
Most of the state's concerns have to do with having a system in place so that workers with serious injuries in remote places can quickly be treated and, if necessary, taken to Valdez or Anchorage.
"We expect activity in emergency rooms before this is over," said Eric Short, deputy chief of the state's Worker Protection Office. "With this many people, we expect there's at least going to be trips, slips and falls."
As of Tuesday, Exxon had about 100 workers, most of them Alaskans hired in recent days, living on a barge anchored in Mummy Bay off Naked Island. Company officials have said at least 500 more workers will be hired to work on shore during the next several weeks. The shore workers are being hired by Veco, the oil field service firm, and will be housed on two additional barges and in Valdez.
State labor officials have been working with Exxon, Veco and several other state and federal agencies in Valdez to establish a detailed safety plan for the cleanup effort. But the labor commissioner said he wasn't happy with how the talks have gone, and said more needs to be done before large numbers of workers are sent out into the Sound.
"If we find situations that are willful violations or serious violations that can cause injuries or deaths, then we'll stop the operations," Sampson said. ". . . I'm not threatening anything, we're trying to work with them. They seem to be receptive. But they're not as organized in the safety area as they should be and we're tired of hearing excuses."
Over the weekend, he said, Exxon and Veco "indicated to me they were going to provide (emergency medical technicians) and all this kind of stuff, and in our initial inspections some of that wasn't happening."
Botto, Exxon's safety chief, said the company in recent days hired four certified emergency medical technicians at various places in the Sound, including on the "floatel" off Naked Island. As work grows in coming days, more will be hired, and the company is working out a plan to have small boats, helicopters and floatplanes available for medical transportation, he said. Exxon has hired a California industrialhygiene firm to work on safety issues, he said.
The state is requiring that workers on shore be equipped with rubber boots, rubber gloves and raingear, and that crews have life vests when riding in boats to the island. Workers also are required to sit through a twohour safety lecture that covers risks such as as hypothermia.
State health authorities have been investigating reports of nausea and headaches among workers and others, including residents of the Native villages of Chenega Bay and Tatitlek. Tests of air have found no dangerous fumes from the oil in the villages or in places where cleanup is being attempted, and the risk of harmful vapors diminishes the longer oil is in the water, Short said.
"A lot of it may be related to diesel emissions from the engines," he said. Still, authorities have sent test results off to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and a team of toxicologists requested by the Laborers International Union is scheduled to arrive in Valdez today to evaluate workerhealth conditions. The union represents some of the Veco workers.
Meanwhile, Botto said, shore crews are being asked to put leftover food or wrappers in garbage bags and take the bags back to the barges every night to keep bears and other animals away. He said the company was getting advice from the National Forest Service about dealing with what bears there are.
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