Supreme Court To Review Worker Safety

The Supreme Court said it will use a dispute over a fatal explosion on an oil-drilling barge to clarify the extent of worker safety regulations on barges and fishing boats.

The court said it will hear the government's argument that OSHA has the authority to issue comprehensive rules for worker safety on such vessels.

Government lawyers say a lower court left thousands of employees unprotected from safety risks by ruling that less-extensive Coast Guard safety regulations canceled out the OSHA rules.

Four people were killed in a June 1997 explosion on a drilling barge on a swamp in St. Martin Parish, La. The explosion occurred while crew members tried to regain control of the well after a blowout.

OSHA cited the rig's owner, Mallard Bay Drilling of New Iberia, La., for not evacuating workers quickly and failing to develop and carry out an emergency response plan.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out OSHA's action last June, saying the agency lacked authority to regulate worker safety on ships and vessels.

The Coast Guard has exclusive authority to regulate seaman's working conditions, the appeals court said.

The Coast Guard has broad authority to regulate worker safety on vessels it regularly inspects, including passenger and freight ships and tank vessels.

But its regulation is much more limited on vessels it generally does not inspect, including barges, fishing vessels and tugboats.

Other federal appeals courts have ruled that OSHA can regulate worker safety on vessels that are not regularly inspected by the Coast Guard.

In the appeal acted on Tuesday, Justice Department lawyers said the 5th Circuit Court's ruling "puts at risk the safety and health of employees on thousands of uninspected vessels" in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, which make up the 5th Circuit.

Lawyers for Mallard Bay Drilling said the Coast Guard has exclusive responsibility for worker safety on such vessels.

Edited by Virginia Sutcliffe

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