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Oil Worker Safety Hearing Yields Real Concerns

Friday, June 25th, 2010

Ravi BakhruOil rig worker safety has been in the news a lot lately. Nearly every major media outlet and blogger in the entire Nation has directed its attention to arguably the worst environmental disaster in our history. As a result, the headlines and attention have been comprehensive, ranging from BP’s efforts in responding the disaster, to the safety of oil rig workers and those commissioned to help clean up the coastline.

To that end, The House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on Wednesday to discuss worker safety oversight from the oil rig to the shoreline. Pointedly, Chairman George Miller tasked the hearing with determining whether the current regulatory framework is appropriate and effective, specifically referencing the coordination and delegation of oversight between various federal agencies. Before the committee were representatives from the Coast Guard, NIOSH, the DOL, and BOE (formerly MMS).

Major Points From The Hearing:

Whistleblower Protection. Chairman Miller at one point asked whether workers on these rigs had the benefit of whistleblower protection to provide an avenue by which they could report dangerous conditions. While OSHA provides whistleblower protection, it is clear that the agencies responsible for worker safety oversight do not have a process by which such complaints can be processed. What’s even more startling is that OSHA, the agency responsible for enforcing whistleblower statutes, has no jurisdiction where many of these rigs operate. OSHA’s jurisdiction ends 3 miles outside of the coast line, where the US Coast Guard takes over, and what became clear during this hearing is that the US Coast Guard and MMS/BOE do not have legislation in place for whistleblower protection.

“Who’s In Charge?” Ranking Republican John Kline started with a question that seemed to be a topic members were confused with. At one point the Congressman compared the current system of oversight to the lack of coordination in the intelligence community immediately after 9/11. On a related issue, the Committee seemed to gloss over the fact that the Coast Guard and BOE had a memo of understanding between them, distributing inspections over specific items on board rigs. Although the organizations meet quarterly to review their inspections, I can’t help look at this as wholly inefficient. Now, this doesn’t necessarily apply to an accident response framework. Rear Admiral Kevin Cook from the Coast Guard made it clear that the Coast Guard’s Federal On Scene Coordinator was doing a tremendous job coordinating the help from all federal agencies at the accident site. Credit should be given in this regard.

Staggering Deficiencies. Committee members asked in several different ways whether the agencies before them had the necessary resources to perform their oversight functions and the resounding answer was in the negative. David Michaels, representing OSHA, was asked to expand on a comment made during a Senate hearing explained that their resources were barely sufficient to handle their present functions, let alone take on new inspections of offshore drill sites. Doug Slitor explained his agency had a total of 56 inspectors (some with purely administrative and supervisory responsibilities) in the Gulf of Mexico for 3500 site inspections every year.

Safety Systems Management. The Committee made it very clear they consider OSHA to be the experts when it comes to safety oversight, and who would disagree with them? Sure, OSHA has their own problems as Mr. Michaels pointed out, when it comes to worker safety OSHA has the framework in place to broaden their scope if need be. Of particular concern was the current system in place, which at the moment is largely voluntary. Not only voluntary, Chairman Miller also noted the framework was largely due to suggestions from the oil industry itself. It seems clear that many are not pleased with the oversight framework currently in place, and want to see changes made. The phrase “like a duck” kept jumping out as the camera swung over to Mr. Slitor’s responses. Though he remained calm, I imagine his legs were churning furiously underwater.

We don’t yet know what caused the explosion itself, and perhaps we will never truly know. But the fact remains, something went wrong aboard that oil rig leading to the deaths of 11 workers. Hearings are a good start, but when you see problems in communications and standards, it’s time to act. Committee members repeatedly stated the need to ensure an efficient and protective system before the next disaster. I sincerely hope they live up to that.

About The Author: Ravi Bakhru is a third year law student at George Washington University. He currently works as an intern for Workplace Fairness, and has an interest in pursuing employee rights law in the future. To get in touch with Ravi, you can email him at [email protected]

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