Dems call on Salazar to tap work safety agency to help craft offshore rules

Key House Democrats on Friday pressed the Interior Department to work with the administration's workplace safety experts — not just the oil industry — as it crafts rules to protect workers offshore.

Reps. George Miller (Calif.) and Nick Rahall (W.Va.) say that the guidelines under draft are "not comprehensive enough" to ensure worker safety on offshore oil rigs. The Democrats are urging Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to consult experts at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) before installing the standards.

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"We want to be sure that there are no gaps in the regulatory safety net," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Salazar Friday. 

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOE), formerly the Minerals Management Service (MMS), is finalizing mandatory guidelines — known as a  process safety management (PSM) standard — designed to protect workers on offshore oil rigs. Current voluntary standards were drafted with guidance from the American Petroleum Institute (API), an industry group, but not OSHA, a top BOE official told the House Education and Labor Committee this week.

Miller, who chairs the committee, said Wednesday that he was "stunned," not only that there is currently no mandatory PSM standard offshore, but also that BOE would lean so heavily on the industry while drafting one — particularly in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon blast that killed 11 oil rig workers in the Gulf of Mexico in April. 

"It is stunning that we don't have one in place for these rigs," Miller said Wednesday. 

He and Rahall, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee, are urging Salazar to "actively engage OSHA to seek that agency’s expertise and experience on process safety management prior to issuing any final 'Safety and Environmental Management Systems' regulation."

"In parallel," the lawmakers wrote, "we urge OSHA to review the proposed MMS regulation in light of its own experience in enforcing a similar safety management regulation, and to incorporate lessons learned from major oil rig disasters such as the Piper Alpha rig explosion off the coast of the United Kingdom."

The 1988 Piper Alpha explosion killed 167 workers in the North Sea. In the wake of that disaster, Britain overhauled its jurisdictional rules so that the country's workplace safety agency, not the energy department, had oversight over offshore rigs -- something that many worker advocates are calling for here in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. 

A 1970 labor law gives OSHA jurisdiction over the Outer Continental Shelf, but a provision of that statute has allowed both the BOE and the Coast Guard to pre-empt OSHA’s offshore oversight authority.

The issue hasn't been lost on Congress. Next Thursday, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who heads a the HELP Committee's employment subpanel, has scheduled a hearing on offshore worker safety protections — the second she's held on the topic in a month. 

The first time around, BP declined her invitation to testify. The witness list for next week's hearing has yet to be announced. 

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