An environmental and worker disaster

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Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century


It‘s coming up on 10 o’clock in the evening aboard a massive oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon, 130 miles off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s Tuesday, April 20. The rig sways gently in the calm waters. Then, suddenly . . . BOOM!

A huge explosion rocks the rig, releasing tons of oil that soon will spread over an area of at least 2,500 square miles. Of course it’s an environmental disaster, probably the worst oil spill ever. That’s what draws massive attention from the media. But what of the workers aboard the rig, who suffered terrible trauma, serious injury and death?

Too often, the mainstream corporate media all but ignore workers’ suffering in such disasters. They sometimes seem more concerned with the degradation of the environment than with the suffering of humans. They focus almost solely on the environmental damage, and its cost to those who employ the workers.

Too often, the workers are treated as mere numbers. Eleven dead, 17 injured, said the media accounts of the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  But just what does that mean? Precisely how were the workers made to suffer? Might they suffer in the future because of their injuries? What can and should be done to make future work safer for them and others? The mainstream media rarely ask such questions. Working people, be they on land or sea, are of secondary concern to them.

The explosion was horrendous. It turned the Deepwater Horizon’s deck into what one worker described as “like a war zone.” One of his co-workers told of seeing “guys burning” and “some guy missing limbs.” The scene was indeed what he recalled as “extremely gruesome.”

Flames from the burning oil shot into the sky, high as a multi-story building, as some of the 126 people on board leaped overboard to reach lifeboats waiting in the water 80 feet below. It took 45 minutes for Coast Guard rescue boats and helicopters to reach the rig, the heat of the oil flames so intense by then it melted paint off the rescue boats.

Some survivors were rescued by a supply ship operated by British Petroleum (BP), which had leased the Deepwater Horizon from the Transocean corporation. Seven BP executives who were on board were injured, but that didn’t move them to express any concern for the future safety of their employees.

Transocean, meanwhile, has tried to keep the workers from filing for legal judgments that would grant them compensation for any alleged negligence that caused the explosion and for any psychiatric problems and other injuries that stemmed from the blast.
The workers were rushed under employer escort to hospitals and a New Orleans hotel immediately after rescue and not allowed to contact their families or anyone else who might advise them on whether they should agree to initial forms that Transocean lawyers insisted they initial.

The form said in effect that the worker had been on the rig when it exploded, but had seen nothing or did see something and was or was not hurt.

In the meantime, the media continue to report in detail about the serious effects the explosion has had on the environment while all but ignoring its serious effects on the workers involved.

To concerned environmentalists, the accident is yet another strong argument against the folly of offshore oil drilling, But a more immediate concern should be the dangers faced by workers involved in the continued drilling. For if the drilling is not to be halted, there's a great need for much greater safety procedures.

Accidents have taken the lives of nearly 70 oil rig workers over the past nine years, including the 11 who died in the Gulf of Mexico. Protect the environment, yes.
But first, protect human lives.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century.  Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.