The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest environmental disaster in US history, creates a massive challenge to the nations' workers' compensation system. The system, already stressed to its limits, must now attempt to compensate injured workers and volunteers who are working to clean up the huge oil spill.
In the past, when disasters of this magnitude confronted the nation's workforce, the Federal government has established a separate compensation system to provide benefits. Based upon the new Federal national health care legislation, and the provisions enacted under the Libby Health Care Plan, it appears logical that this health disaster would be more than suitable for incorporation into a Federalized workers' compensation program.
The government has recently identified numerous hazardous chemicals and adverse health effects that may confront oil spill workers. Those include: drowning, occupational exposures exposures to dispersants, heat and cold, fatigue, confined spaces, ergonomic stress, noise, biohazards, ergonomic stresses, confined spaces, and many other conditions.
The civil liability claims are targeted to the potential ultimate wrongdoers: British Petroleum-energy company; Transocean Ltd., rig owner; Halliburton Energy Services, cement contractor; or Cameron International, blowout preventer manufacturer, under civil liability or statutory authority of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA). The emergent issue that remains is how to deliver benefits to injured or exposed workers and volunteers. That remains in limbo. Even if the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund were allowed to be tapped for compensation benefits, years of delay over litigation would exist before payments were actually made to victims.
A declaration of a health emergency from the Secretary of Health and Human Services at this time would appear to be more than appropriate so that the health needs of the workers and volunteers could be immediately addressed. To delay action will only adds insult to injury. Invoking, at once, of the Libby Health Care program provisions would provide a first start to much needed relief to the Gulf spill workers and volunteers.
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