Democrats home in on offshore worker safety

Senior Democrats are questioning who should be responsible for monitoring the safety of offshore oil rig workers.

Although the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is charged with overseeing safety on land-based rigs, the agency loses its authority when those facilities move offshore. There, workplace safety is a responsibility split between the Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service (MMS), a branch of the Interior Department.

Critics of that arrangement contend that the numerous other responsibilities of the MMS and the Coast Guard — which include leasing rigs, policing coastal waters and collecting royalties — distract those agencies from a focus on occupational safety (at best) and represent a conflict of interest (at worst). Many worker advocates maintain that OSHA, which concentrates exclusively on safety issues, is better suited for the task.

“To state the obvious, MMS and the Coast Guard are not worker safety agencies,” said Bill Hoyle, a former lead investigator for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. “It’s high time that we had a dedicated worker-safety agency overseeing offshore drilling.”

Some Democrats also are starting to question the logic of having non-worker safety agencies responsible for the well-being of offshore rig employees.

House Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) has called a hearing next week to examine worker safety related to the Gulf of Mexico spill — both onshore and off-. That hearing, Miller’s office said, will tackle the jurisdictional question directly. David Michaels, who heads OSHA, is scheduled to testify.

And Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinWisconsin lawmaker gets buzz-cut after vowing not to cut hair until sign language bill passed Democratic debates kick off Iowa summer sprint Key endorsements: A who's who in early states MORE (D-Iowa), the head of the Senate Labor panel, said this week that he’s also interested in taking a closer look.

Before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Iowa Democrat said he “had no idea” that agencies other than OSHA were responsible for overseeing workplace safety offshore. He told The Hill on Tuesday that putting OSHA in charge of that realm is something “really worth looking into.”

Peg Seminario, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO, is also pushing for offshore work-safety reforms, arguing that MMS and the Coast Guard simply don’t have the expertise to ensure the protection of workers.

Yet she was also quick to note that there are other options aside from simply expanding OSHA’s reach. Noting that both the nuclear and mining industries have separate oversight agencies, she wondered whether offshore drill rigs deserve the same. OSHA’s resources, she warned, “are spread very, very thin.” 

Eleven men were killed, and dozens more injured, following the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, roughly 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The youngest victim, Shane Roshto of Franklin County, Miss., was 22; the oldest, Keith Blair Manuel of Eunice, La., was 56. The bodies were never recovered.

Although the scale of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is rare, offshore drilling accidents are not. Between 2001 and 2009, 60 offshore workers were killed on the job, while more than 1,600 were injured, according to the MMS. Statistically, it remains one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.

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

The jurisdictional debate is not unlike the one that followed another horrific offshore drilling accident: the 1988 Piper Alpha blast that killed 167 workers in the North Sea. At the time, British law dictated that worker safety was the responsibility of the Department of Energy. After the disaster, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) took charge.

Hoyle, who managed the investigation into the deadly 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas, said the HSE has a better track record. “The U.S. should have learned from that experience,” he said.

Not that OSHA is necessarily interested in taking responsibility for offshore drill rigs. Jordan Barab, the agency’s deputy assistant secretary, said last week that “nobody’s offered [that power] to us, and we certainly haven’t asked.”

Still, he said, there’s “obviously … some restructuring that’s got to be done.”

The Obama administration has already launched some reforms. Recognizing the conflicts of interest inherent within the MMS — whose duties include leasing, revenue collection and safety enforcement — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently split the agency into three parts, one of which will focus exclusively on the “oversight, safety and environmental protection in all offshore energy activities.”