Tony: Painting Oil Rigs and Boats in Louisiana


We filmed Tony for our first documentary, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: How Chemical Exposures May Be Affecting Your Health (1998), which can be viewed on my personal website to the right. The story below is my transcription of parts of that long interview. He is an amazing man whose life illustrates how so many workers are doing dangerous jobs that enable the rest of us to “live the good life” while their health is being destroyed. I think you will agree that Tony has a remarkable gift for saying things in an unforgettable way. 

I was raised down here in Cajun country, and down here we got the oil fields and off-shore work, that kind of thing. Our main industry down here is oil. When I was 18, I went to work offshore. I started out as a galley hand, working in the kitchen. After a year or so, I started doing roustabout work on platforms, going around to different platforms. I did clean-up jobs, changing out valves. Back then, I got a lot of exposures. I remember one time that a boat had accidentally pumped diesel into our water tank on this rig. We had to drain the tank and get in there and clean it all out with chlorox and all, and it was pretty bad. It had that old diesel smell in there and all that, and that was one of the first things I did that was pretty bad. Another time I had to clean out the separator, which was full of fossil fuel, sand, and sea water.

For a couple of years, I did seismograph work on shore and that was pretty clean. Then I came back down to the Gulf Coast area for one weekend, and I had an accident and broke my truck. I went to work with some friends of mine, a bunch of home boys from my hometown, as a sandblasting and painting helper. I was supposedly going to work just enough to get enough money to fix my vehicle and head back to Mississippi. I was pretty young and wild at that time, but I ended up working with the home boys and painting and sandblasting. There used to be a saying among painters that once you breathe enough MEK, methyl ethyl ketone, you won’t want to leave, you won’t want to do any other kind of work.  That was pretty stupid.  

Anyway, back then, there were very few regulations or anything about safety or using respirators. We used to paint with T-shirts over our heads. I worked in the painting industry for two years before I even knew what a respirator was. We used these desert hoods, little canvas hoods to sandblast. We were breathing a lot of dust and sand, and everybody was scared of getting silicosis of the lungs. We hadn’t really focused that much on how dangerous the paints were. We knew that when you read the back end of the can, it said it’ll cause this and cause that. We used to joke and say, “Why don’t they just say it’ll kill you?” Anyway, we never paid too much attention to the back of the label. They weren’t very strict about safety back then. 

So anyway I stayed working with these home boys and got caught up in sandblasting and painting and started working offshore; mainly that’s where I did most of my work was offshore. One time we went out to an eight-legged platform with a crew of six men, and we sandblasted and painted that whole thing from one end to the other in 103 days. We used to boast about ourselves, about what good painters we were. Anyway, I was always breathing MEK, which was a cleaning solvent we used everyday, we used it morning, noon, and night to clean our equipment. It was just part of our life. We washed our clothes together, and sometimes we lived in little bitty bunkhouses that they moved from rig to rig, like a small trailer with absolutely no windows. You get a gang of sandblasters and painters living in there with painted-up clothes and all of that, and it’s just like you’re living in constant fumes.

I went underneath cellar decks on platforms and stuff. I walked on 3/8″ cables, holding on with one hand, and nothing below me but iron and water. Anyway, there were very few safety concerns. It was very seldom that anyone wore safety belts. We used to have a joke that if you fell, if you were lucky, you would hit one of those pipes and it would slow you down before you hit that salt water, because that salt water was hard. I’m not no John Wayne or nothing, but there’s not too damn much that I’m afraid of.

I worked on boats where we had all our equipment on the boats and we would back the boats up to the platforms. I’ve been around diesel motors and stuff—compressors that were so loud you had to scream at each other to hear each other, which was really bad for our ears and all, and we would sleep on the boats. Every one of those boats at one time or another had got their water tanks and their fuel tanks mixed up because on almost every boat in the Gulf of Mexico, when you took a shower, you could smell the diesel. That’s a harsh statement, but most of the work boats I worked on were like that. It may be different today. This was some years back.

Finally we hit the oil crunch in the early 1980s, and I started taking work in different plants. I landed a job which was to be my last job as being a part of the workforce. This was around Christmas of 1988. I landed a job with someone who wanted somebody who didn’t want to work offshore.  Everybody was screaming to work offshore, but I had had my fill of offshore work. I wanted to work on land. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I ended up with this job that was a really good job. I worked there as a sandblaster and painter at first. Then they put me in charge of buying paint and stuff. I changed the paint system around. It was a good job, and slowly, little by little, I started doing a little bit of truck driving, here and there. Then the old guy that was the yard hand, head gofer, had a heart attack and had to quit. They kind of in a round-about way gave me that job. I started getting away from the sandblasting and painting little by little. I would paint a little, but I was driving trucks more than painting. They changed my job title, moved me up, everything was hunky-dory.  

So everything was going pretty good when this guy came over to the boat yard and wanted his boat painted. It was a small bass boat that was homemade. He had one gallon of automobile paint that he wanted to use. I had never touched a drop of automobile paint in my life, and I’d been sandblasting and painting for twelve years.

Now prior to painting this boat, when I was getting away from sandblasting and painting, gradually getting away, I was beginning to notice that every time I did spray paint, and I sprayed in particular urethane paint containing isocyanates, I was having problems. I had to have a respirator just to mix the paint, which is a common safety practice now. Usually after we got it mixed, we would try to spray a little bit with our gun to make sure that it was working correctly and all that, and then we would go cover ourselves up real good, put on our respirator. But it got to the point that I had to have my respirator on just to try out my spray gun. These urethane paints were beginning to bother me, and when I went into the shed where all our paints were stored, I was having problems in there. When I’d get away from it, I would start to feel pretty good. Then around the back of our paint shed we had MEK stored, and it got to where I couldn’t tolerate the MEK. I was having this sort of like a pinching sensation in my chest anytime I got around MEK or urethane paints.

We used to have safety meetings, and they would say things like: “Don’t slip, don’t trip. If you go up a ladder, hold onto the hand rail.” No one ever talked about what kind of symptoms you would be having if you were beginning to develop a loss of tolerance for all these chemicals.

Anyway, that guy kept coming around, coming around, saying, “When are you going to paint my boat?” We were waiting for the weather to get right, and there was a lot of stress built up.  

So the day rolls around to paint the boat. I had to use the welders’ shop to paint his boat because I had to have it suspended in midair. That Sunday afternoon, I started painting the boat, but it went on into the night, and I was painting some other things outside and going inside to paint the boat. I’d go in and out, in and out of the welding shop that didn’t have any kind of ventilation because there was sand everywhere and the wind would blow the sand, and the man didn’t want sand to get on his pretty boat. He wanted it done to perfection. So going in and out, in and out, putting my respirator on and off, painting outside and painting inside, I think my body just reached a level where that was it.  I crossed some sort of a line.

I felt a little strange that night when it was all over, a little wobbly. When I got in my car to drive home, I felt kind of bad. I went and picked up my children at the babysitter’s and went home and slept. When I woke up the next morning, it felt like I had kind of a chest cold. On Tuesday it felt like I was kind of coming down with the flu, and I noticed that when I would exert myself, I started to feel real bad, but I kept trying to work. I was a good, loyal employee, went to work every day, I was never late. I never minded putting in overtime. In fact, up to the point I painted that boat, I had worked 21 consecutive days nonstop, every day, so that may have been a factor in my body being overburdened with these chemicals and all.

On Wednesday, I had to go to Texas and deliver some welding equipment in a great big truck that ran on diesel, and it felt like I had a block of ice on my chest. When I was coming back, I was having a hard time driving; it still felt like I had ice on my chest. Then on Thursday morning I drove halfway to work and said, “Man, there’s something wrong with me.” By this time, my ankles began to feel like I was walking around on sprung ankles, and the bottoms of my feet were like on fire. I just knew something was terribly wrong, so I turned around and went to a doctor. He was an old country doctor, he was a good old boy. He checked me out, and he said, “Man, you’ve got pneumonia in one lung.” He gave me a shot and some medication and sent me home.

Friday morning I felt like I was dying, and I went back to the doctor and he checked me out. He said, “You’ve got bilateral pneumonia. I’m going to have to put you in the hospital to clear this up.” When I went to the hospital, a woman who worked there whose husband was a friend of mine at work saw me going in the hospital. She called up the people that I work for and told them, “Man, you’d better come and see about this guy. He looks like he’s fixing to die.” And I did look like walking death going into that hospital.

But by 5 o’clock that afternoon, I looked like the perfect picture of health. I didn’t look like there was a thing wrong with me. The doctor came in when he made his rounds, and he said, “You sure bounce back fast.” I said I was feeling better. I hadn’t really put my finger on it that my house was so chemically saturated because of the kind of work that I had done, dragging that stuff home. I guess it helped me to get in the semi-clean hospital environment that was a whole lot cleaner than what was at my job or my home. The doctor said he couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, so he kept me in the hospital the rest of the weekend to run a few more tests. He let me out late Sunday afternoon. I went home, but by about 8 or 9 o’clock that night I was going down hill, I was in a bind all over again.

Monday morning I went back to the doctor’s office, and he took one look at me, and he scratched his head and said, “I don’t know what’s the matter with you, but you look like somebody had beat the hell out of you.” I didn’t know anything about reactive airway disease yet. I hadn’t made the connection that when I had painted this boat inside, my body just met with its tolerance level. I hadn’t really put all the stuff together. The doctor said: “Go home and sit and rest. I don’t understand it. I’ve given you so many antibiotics, you shouldn’t have a germ in your body.” So he made me an appointment to go see a pulmonary function specialist.

When I went to see the pulmonary function specialist, he started backing up in the sequence of events, when all this started, and that’s when I put my finger on painting that boat. Painting indoors is a lot different than painting outdoors. Anyway, he ordered a SPECT test for me, and he made me an appointment with a neurologist.  

In the meantime, I was taking pain medication. I couldn’t walk from the sofa to the bathroom. I was really in a bind because I’m a single parent. I had to sit in a chair to wash the dishes and stuff. I just literally couldn’t hardly do anything.  

I was bound and determined, however, to get well and go back to work. People kept calling me to go back to work. They would say,  “When are you going to get better? The work’s piling up, we need you down here.” All that kind of stuff. Finally, I was getting hungry. It had been about three weeks, I was running out of money and all that, so I went to the doctor and I said, “Man, are you going to let me go back to work?” He was totally against it and said: “I’ll let you go back to work, but absolutely no painting and extremely light duties. Hang around the office and make calls.”  

So I went back to work on those terms. But by the second day I was there, they had me loading a truck to go to Texas, the same diesel truck. I found that when I would exert myself, my body would pound, much like if you smashed your finger with a hammer. Finally, I told them, I said, “Man, you’re going to have to come and help me with this truck.” So they came out there and helped me load. I ended up driving it again. When I came back home that night on the interstate, man, I thought I was going to die. The next day I went into work and said, “I just can’t do this, man.” About that time the pulmonary function specialist called me with the results of that SPECT scan. He said: “You’ve got slight brain damage, but with the right medication and physical therapy, you’ll be all right in about six months.” I left work early and went over to have this guy tell me this face to face.

So I took this all to my boss and told him that I was sick like this and that it was going to take me a while to get well, but I still wanted my job, I still wanted to work. I loved my job, I wasn’t lazy. The last thing I was, was lazy. He said, “Well, we’ll fill out an accident report,” and he started turning it in to the workers’ comp people and all that and everybody started running like ants because it was a big thing if anybody was ever to get hurt right there on that yard. It was one thing if somebody got hurt offshore where the big bosses didn’t have any control over it, but to get hurt right there on the yard with all these big bosses around, somebody was going to take a fall. Anyway, what happened was, they didn’t want  to acknowledge I was hurt. My boss crossed his arms, and he stood in the corner, he looked at the road, he looked at me. He said, “If you can prove the paint did this to you, I guess we’ll have to take care of you.” And I looked at him, and he looked at the road, and he looked at me and I looked at him and he looked at the road and that was all.  

From that moment on, nobody down there even wanted to talk to me. I kept trying to talk with the main office to try and get my workers’ comp, and the workers’ comp man called me on the phone. He claimed that I didn’t want to get along with him, and he said they had reviewed my case and they didn’t think I was hurt. Anyway, they denied me my workers’ comp. So I went to the bossman who was the owner and a Christian kind of a guy. I talked to him, and he called the workers’ comp guy back and told the workers’ comp man, “Look, Anthony L. is an exceptional employee, and he should be treated as such.” But the workers’ comp people still treated me like they treat everybody. I didn’t get no workers’ comp. I had my private insurance that I was paying for out of my payroll check. I kept going to doctors with my private insurance, trying to find out what was wrong with me. I went to this neurologist, and he said, “You look OK, you can go back to work.” I said, “I’m telling you I can’t walk around my house without having some place to sit down.” Anyway, it turned out he was working for the insurance people or whatever. I hate for things to get ugly, but a situation like this gets ugly.

My private insurance wouldn’t pay for anything because they thought it was a work-related injury, and the workers’ comp wouldn’t pay because they thought that I wasn’t hurt, so I kept doctor-hopping around. I ended up in a charity university hospital and spent 17 hours waiting to see a doctor. Here I supposedly had private insurance and should have had workers’ comp and neither one of them wanted to pay. There was nothing I could do. I threw my hands up in the air.

Then I stumbled across a doctor that said, “I’m not the one who can help you, but I’ve got a pretty good idea of who can.” He sent me to this other doctor who was a specialist in occupational toxicology and occupational illness. I went to see him with SPECT scan in hand. The guy knew right away what was the matter with me, and he began to treat me. By this time I had gotten a lawyer. He was forcing my insurance company to pay to take care of me; otherwise, they might end up with a wrongful death case. I ended up having endoscopic sinus surgery, and the biopsies showed I had reactive airways disease. All the pollution down here just makes that worse. There’s no place to breath clean air around here, there’s no more fresh air, especially in Louisiana and in the house where I was living.

I was battling workers’ comp all this time on the legal front. I went to a total of 17 depositions, and the very first deposition that I went to was in my boss’s office down there almost on the Gulf of Mexico. Every one of my fellow employees came in there and verified that I was an honest, hard worker, had a nice personality, was always on time, and they loved working with me. Not a one of them said anything bad. The workers’ comp lawyer said at that point that they realized I was hurt in the course and scope of my job and they were going to take care of me. They were going to start giving me 2/3 of my salary.  

But what the workers’ comp did was they didn’t like what that lawyer told them, so they changed lawyers and denied the whole thing, and I started in for the fight of my life. After that I went to an additional 16 depositions. I spent three days in court. Finally on December 3, 1992, a year and nine months after I got hurt, the judge decided that they were responsible for my injury, but what I had to do was that the doctor to prove to this bunch of idiots that I was hurt, he had a nerve taken out of my ankle, a nerve that you supposedly don’t really need, and had it analyzed, had biopsies done on it to prove I had nerve damage throughout my body and especially in my extremities, my hands and feet. This was sent to an independent medical examiner who had a name a foot long. This guy was president of some big organization, a specialist in toxicology and all, and this guy had decided, yes, the man was injured with the painting chemicals and stuff. When he sent his report to the workers’ comp, he put in ten pages of references to old painters and what happens to old painters and how their bodies just get all tore up.

The workers’ comp people were still thinking about appealing after all of that. By this time they had pretty much beat me to the ground. My car had four bald tires, there was one brake on one wheel. My children were running around with holes in their shoes and pants. I was on welfare, food stamps. My landlord was letting me live on credit, my babysitter was babysitting on credit.  

My lawyer said the judge had charged the workers’ comp people a $3,000 arbitrary and capricious behavior penalty for what they had done to me. But $3,000 was nothing for what those people put me though when them people knew after the first deposition that I was hurt. They knew they had so much time to keep their money in the bank.

Finally, on February 14, 1993, I got the first penny out of them guys, almost two years after I was hurt. So I walked into a drugstore and said to the druggist, “I’m not on private insurance anymore, the battle’s been won.” Or so I thought—the sigh of relief was really shortlived. I told the druggist that workers’ comp was going to be responsible for paying for my medications, and I handed him the prescription. He called the workers’ comp guy, who said there was not sufficient documentation, we need this, we need that, and all hell broke lose. For the next nine months, the rest of that year, I was having to pay for my medication out of my own pocket, I wasn’t getting reimbursed. What them people did to me in the next nine months was almost as bad as what the chemicals had done to me, and that’s when I coined the phrase “battered insurance syndrome.” It got so bad dealing with those people that it was a trauma in itself just to look in their direction.  

My poor doctor had been giving them people documentation on top of documentation. They had some nurse working in New Orleans debating whether I needed this or whether I needed that. So slowly I started weaning myself off of the medications and going toward the health food store.

When I was first hurt, I started losing sleep right away. When I laid in bed, my legs were just twisting and turning. I would sleep only two or three hours a night, and when my insomnia was at its worst, I would sleep only every other night. I stayed like that for four years. My doctor was giving me knock-out pills, and he said he couldn’t understand why I couldn’t sleep because the pills should have knocked me out. It wasn’t until I moved and began to clean up my environment, get myself a safe place to live, that I began being able to sleep.

After I first became sick, I was bound and determined to keep living down there by the Gulf, but that didn’t work out. My neighbor would see mosquitoes in her grass when she was mowing it, and she would call the town officials. They would come out with something that looked like a leaf blower and blow pesticide all around. I couldn’t take a walk at all. I decided to move further north away from the coast, so I moved into this trailer that was twelve years old. It has sheetrock walls. The floor was particleboard, so I sealed it. It took a couple of weeks before I could sleep in the bedroom.  

By this time I had thrown away almost everything that I owned. When you come to my house, it looks like somebody is just moving in or just moving out. We live with very little, but we get by. My children learned to adjust. It was hard, but they’ve done it. They tell me that in some ways they’re better for it. It’s taught them some valuable lessons and all in kind of an underlying way. Anyway, I went through a lot of trouble with neighbors and all. They would see me hanging things out on the clothesline for two or three weeks. People just don’t understand how long you have to air some things out.

It’s almost amazing that a guy like me who’s been around chemicals, been exposed to raw fossil fuel, diesel, and oils and all that stuff—I smelt it all—and today if I walk out my front door, and my neighbor has got her dryer going with those fabric softeners or harsh detergents, it’ll chase me right back into my house.

If I go roaming around and trying to act like a regular person, I’ll come back home with what I call a chemical hangover. I’ll have trouble breathing, my feet will hurt, my whole body hurts. And in the morning, Man, it takes everything I got just to get out of bed. That’s when I kind of came up with these analogies to help me understand my illness better, like fumeaholic, chemicalism, where I started integrating these things because to me this is a way of putting it on a social level. You don’t have to open up a big two-foot book to try to explain why this stuff bothers me, you know. This is a tolerance thing, it’s all about what you can tolerate.

You know, I heard some guy on television talking about how this MCS is just an odor aversion. Man, that just takes the cake.