Rep. Miller takes on Interior Department over new offshore work-safety rules

The Obama administration is drafting new offshore worker-safety rules using input from the oil industry but not its own workplace safety experts, a senior Interior Department official told House lawmakers Wednesday.

The testimony from a top official at the Interior agency that oversees offshore drilling drew a quick rebuke from Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who called the strategy “stunning” in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 workers in the Gulf of Mexico in April. 

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Miller, the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, urged the administration to postpone its release of the new guidelines until officials get more input from work-safety experts.

The controversy centers around a new workplace safety standard, called a process safety management (PSM) rule, currently under draft by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOE), the Interior agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service. 

The guideline is designed to protect offshore oilrig workers by forcing companies to adopt a more systemic approach to workplace safety inspections. Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a part of the Labor Department, has a longstanding PSM standard governing onshore oil refineries and drill rigs, OSHA loses its jurisdiction over workplace safety for any facilities offshore. 

Testifying before the labor panel Wednesday, Doug Slitor, acting chief officer of offshore regulatory programs at BOE, told lawmakers that agency officials are crafting the new safety rules based on data from the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group. But officials have not sought guidance from OSHA, Slitor added. 

The news shook Miller, who wondered why the BOE had allowed the oil industry more sway than OSHA in determining the new safety standards. 

“I’m not sure that that’s what the public is looking for at this moment,” said Miller, referring to the unpopularity of BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Miller urged Slitor to slow the process to ensure that the final guidelines prioritize worker safety above all else.

The BOE said it would not have a response by press time Wednesday.

Lawmakers on the panel also questioned whether the right regulators are responsible for workplace safety on offshore rigs.

A 1970 labor law empowered OSHA to monitor worker safety on the Outer Continental Shelf, but a provision of that legislation also allowed other agencies to pre-empt OSHA’s jurisdiction offshore. In 1979, the Coast Guard did just that, taking control of safety issues on vessels and oilrigs operating more than three miles off U.S. coasts. In 2003, jurisdiction was tweaked again when the MMS adopted oversight of worker safety on offshore rigs that are anchored to the seafloor. 

Miller said Wednesday that the “jurisdictional mishmash” might be hindering the government’s efforts to protect workers at those facilities. And he’s hardly alone in that thought. 

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) floated the idea of establishing a separate agency to oversee worker safety offshore. Still others wondered if OSHA isn’t better equipped to monitor offshore rigs than the Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service.

“We have a federal agency whose core [focus] is worker safety,” said Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.).

But David Michaels, who heads OSHA, was quick to warn lawmakers that the agency lacks the resources and staff to adopt new offshore oversight responsibilities. Officially, Michaels added, the agency has “no position” on whether OSHA should take over more duties offshore.

Everyone seemed to agree that there could be more communication among OSHA, BOE and the Coast Guard. There was also broad acknowledgement that the tangled web of jurisdictional issues has made it more difficult for lawmakers to identify what should be reformed, and how.

“It’s not entirely clear to me,” said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the committee’s ranking member, “that we know who’s really in charge here.”