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House Hearing Raises Questions on Safety Protections for Offshore Oil Workers

During a June 23 hearing, House Education and Labor Committee members raised serious questions regarding important worker safety protections on offshore oil rigs like the Deepwater Horizon.

While OSHA oversees workplace health and safety within 3 miles of the U.S. coastline, the United States Coast Guard has the authority to issue worker safety regulations for mobile offshore drilling units the Deepwater Horizon beyond the three mile zone. In addition, the Bureau of Ocean Energy (BOE), formerly known as the Mineral Management Service, covers safety for drilling equipment and industrial systems on drilling rigs.

“In light of the current tragedy in Gulf, I hope we can answer whether there is a better way to oversee and protect the health and safety of oil rig workers,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the committee. “The Deepwater disaster clearly demonstrates that the status quo is not good enough. We must do better.”

For example, witnesses from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy could not identify specific protections for workers who blow the whistle on unsafe working conditions or operations.

“These are inherently dangerous working conditions. Now there is a question whether a worker has the protection to say ‘stop’ in face of danger without fear of retaliation. That is a very serious problem if that right doesn’t exist in the law,” said Miller.

Miller also raised questions regarding BOE’s development of a process safety management regulation without the proper involvement of OSHA, which has years of experience in carrying out such a standard. Process safety management standards are used to prevent or contain a catastrophic release of hazardous materials in high-risk operations present in the chemical and petroleum industries.

Witnesses testified that despite some initial problems with coordination on worker protections for workers cleaning up the oil spill, efforts are better coordinated among OSHA, the Coast Guard and BP, which is responsible for providing personal protective equipment to workers.

Dr. John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), an agency part of the Centers for Disease Control, testified that cleanup workers face many risks such as exposure to heat stress and toxic substances that have both short and long-term health implications.

“It is important to protect response workers, volunteers and Gulf coast residents against potential health hazards now so that we can prevent future chronic health effects associated with this spill,” said Howard. He added that NIOSH is currently collecting the names and job duties for the thousands of workers currently involved in the cleanup so they can track current and future health problems.

Michaels: OSHA Will Fight for Worker Safety

During his testimony, OSHA Administrator David Michaels addressed the agency’s efforts to keep workers safe during oil spill cleanup activities. He stressed that OSHA is working closely with other federal agencies, as well as BP, to prevent injuries, illnesses and deaths among these workers. He said the agency has completed more than 1,100 inspections and has taken over 500 environmental samples and cited heat, falls, drowning, fatigue and loud noises among the most pressing hazards for workers.

“When OSHA finds a safety problem or learns of one from workers, we notify BP and we expect the specific problem and similar concerns elsewhere are promptly are addressed across the entire response area. We then follow up to determine if the problem has been corrected,” Michaels said. “OSHA is also ensuring that BP is providing workers, free of charge, the proper training and proper protective equipment. So far, OSHA has found this process to be effective, and it has not had to issue citations or propose civil penalties to obtain compliance. That option remains available, however, and we will not hesitate to use it should we determine that it is necessary.”

According to Michaels, BP has implemented a comprehensive heat stress plan at all of the cleanup sites. OSHA, along with NIOSH, also is taking steps to ensure that workers are not exposed to dangerous levels of toxic chemicals.

“OSHA’s top priority is to ensure that oil spill response and cleanup operations are done as safely as possible and we are working hard to accomplish this,” Michaels added. “Last week, the president assured the nation, ‘We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes.’ OSHA will be there for that fight, doing all that we can to protect the safety and health of those fighters.”

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