In Gulf spill aftermath, oil workers lack advocate

The largest oil spill in U.S. history has received no absence of congressional scrutiny. Yet as lawmakers continue to focus their examinations on the environmental, economic and energy implications of the disaster, a number of labor advocates are beginning to wonder: What about the workers?

The Deepwater Horizon rig burns in April. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Eleven men were killed, and dozens more injured, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The youngest victim, Shane Roshto of Franklin County, Mississippi, was 22; the oldest, Keith Blair Manuel of Eunice, Louisiana, was 56. None of the bodies was recovered.

Yet their stories have become mere footnotes beneath the other narratives that quickly monopolized the national headlines — particularly the environmental and economic threats posed by the millions of gallons of crude oil that have gushed into the Gulf of Mexico since the blast.

Worker advocates are quick to acknowledge the severity of the ongoing leak. Still, many also warn that ignoring the worker safety issues exposed by the tragedy would be a mistake, especially considering that hundreds of oil and gas rigs — among the most statistically dangerous workplaces in the country — remain active off the nation’s shores.

“The worker safety issue has been completely lost in this story,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, an advocacy group. “It’s one of the biggest industrial disasters in recent history, and yet Congress [views it] the same as the public: They’re not seeing it as a worker safety issue.”

Federal statistics support O’Connor’s call for concern. Between 2003 and 2008, 646 oil and gas workers were killed on the job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, including 120 in 2008 — more than twice the number killed in all other mining-related accidents. That year, the oil and gas industry accounted for more than 10 percent of all workplace fatalities resulting from fires and explosions. And offshore rigs are hardly immune. Between 2001 and 2009, 60 offshore workers were killed on the job, while more than 1,600 were injured, according to the Minerals Management Service.

The reaction to the Deepwater Horizon incident contrasts sharply with the response to another recent industrial disaster: the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in southern West Virginia that killed 29 workers and almost killed a 30th. In the wake of that tragedy, it was concern for the well-being of the miners that captivated lawmakers and spurred their indignation.

“[Miners] deserve nothing less than a safe working environment, and an employer who respects and values their safety,” Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) said in April, echoing the sentiments of many colleagues. “We must reexamine the health and safety laws we have put into place and what more may need to be done to avoid future loss of life.”

Since then, three separate labor panels — the Senate HELP Committee, the Senate Appropriations Labor Subcommittee, and the House Education and Labor Committee — have examined the Upper Big Branch accident.

None of those panels has held hearings on the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Senate Democratic leaders were quick to call Gulf spill hearings in the energy, environment and homeland security committees. And in the House, both the energy and natural resources panels have examined the disaster, while the head of the government oversight committee has launched an investigation into the actions of federal regulators prior to the accident. But none of the scrutiny has focused on worker safety.

Part of the reason is likely jurisdictional. Unlike mine safety — which is monitored by a branch of the Labor Department (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) and therefore overseen by Congress’ labor panels — offshore drill rig safety is a responsibility split between the Minerals Management Service, a part of the Interior Department, and the Coast Guard. Neither agency falls under the watch of Congress’ labor experts. (A provision of a 1970 labor law has allowed both the MMS and the Coast Guard to preempt the oversight authority of the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, which focuses exclusively on workplace safety.)

Critics of that arrangement contend that the other responsibilities of the MMS and the Coast Guard dilute their concentration on occupational safety. Peg Seminario, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO, suggested that as a result of the 1970 law, the wrong agencies are in charge of overseeing offshore oil rigs. “Those most focused on worker safety and the environment — OSHA and the EPA — don’t have a say in this,” she said. “It’s an area that clearly needs attention.”

Calls seeking comment from the MMS and the Coast Guard were not returned.

The Obama administration has taken some steps to prevent similar disasters from occurring in the future. Last Thursday, the administration acknowledged that the safety rules for offshore rigs have been lacking, announcing strict new operating requirements for those projects, as well as a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling. And faced with criticisms that the MMS’ duties — which include oil rig leasing, revenue collection and safety enforcement — are conflicting, the Interior Department recently split the agency into three separate parts, one of which will focus exclusively on the “oversight, safety, and environmental protection in all offshore energy activities.”

Meanwhile, congressional labor leaders are urging worker safeguards where they do have jurisdiction in the Gulf region: on land. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, wrote to OSHA on Thursday seeking assurances that the agency is protecting workers involved in the cleanup efforts, some of whom have been hospitalized with headaches, nausea and vomiting.

“Much is still unknown about the long-term health effects of chemicals utilized in this cleanup,” Miller wrote.

“Especially given the health and safety track record of [BP], heightened vigilance is necessary to ensure that every person aiding the cleanup is provided the necessary information, training and equipment to protect themselves.”

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Mike Lillis

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