Who exactly is in charge of worker safety on offshore oil rigs? You might assume that worker safety had been given to the nation’s worker safety regulatory body, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). But in 1979, the responsibility of regulating working conditions on the water fell to the Coast Guard, who in 2003 delegated worker safety on anchored rigs to the Minerals Management Service (MMS).
This “jurisdictional mishmash” (as Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, puts it) has left no clear standards for safety or regulation on oil rigs like Deepwater Horizon, and the tangle of responsibility between OSHA, MMS, and the Coast Guard stands in the way of fixing this problem.
In order to prevent future catastrophes like the deaths of 11 workers and injury of 17 others on April 20th, the new face of MMS, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOE) is acting to draft a safety standard, called a process safety management (PSM) rule. This should be a step in the right direction; OSHA has had a similar PSM rule in effect for onshore oil refineries and drill rigs, and has even fined BP a record $87.4 million after an explosion at a Texas City refinery in 2005.
But BOE has not collaborated with—or even consulted with—OSHA in this process. They are, however, working with data from the American Petroleum Institute, representing big oil industry interests. When BOE was known as the MMS, a District Manager with the agency told the Department of the Interior inspector general, "Obviously, we're all oil industry." Between 2006 and 2009, 30 platform employees working in the Gulf of Mexico were killed in accidents and 1,300 were injured. The maximum fine MMS imposed for these cases was only $25,000, resulting in a total of $20 million in fines—just peanuts compared to the billions of dollars in profits these oil companies are raking in. Worker safety clearly has not been one of MMS’s priorities, and they have not done it well.
When we have a separate agency devoted to the protection of laborers, it doesn’t make sense at all that the responsibility to ensure these workers’ safety lies with MMS. OSHA already regulates worker safety on land, and is even dealing with the safety of people volunteering to clean up after BP on the coast. Why not let the people who know worker safety deal with worker safety everywhere?
-- Alex Bland