What Is OSHA’s Authority Offshore?

One of the questions I get most often when I teach my workshop on SEMS compliance is whether companies need to follow OSHA regulations offshore.  It is a complex question, because it depends on a confusing interpretation of the law plus the expectations of the oil and gas industry. Most of the answers are found in an OSHA instruction:  OSHA Authority Over Vessels and Facilities on or Adjacent to U.S. Navigable Waters and the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) The basic rule of thumb on OSHA is that it does not have authority if another agency regulates safety issues.   The clearest example is that the Coast Guard regulates inspected vessels, so OSHA does not have authority over them.    But when you look at uninspected vessels (towboats, barges, etc.), it is a lot murkier.  The OSHA instruction goes into great detail on how vessel jurisdiction is to be determined. Whether OSHA regulations apply to offshore facility is a complex one that may be in flux.  The OSHA document says:

OSHA, in accordance with section 4(b)(1), still has responsibility for any hazardous working condition for which the U.S. Coast Guard or MMS has not yet promulgated a regulation (see Chao v. Mallard Bay Drilling, Inc., 534 U.S. 235 (2002)). As the U.S. Coast Guard or MMS promulgate additional worker safety and health regulations, OSHA’s application to OCS workplaces will diminish.

That implies that OSHA does have some authority over offshore facility safety and there is a Memorandum of Understanding between OSHA and the Coast Guard that says the Coast Guard will call OSHA when it sees an apparent violation of OSHA standards. However, the SEMS rule may have changed everything.   Remember that OSHA has responsibility over hazardous working conditions where other agencies do not have regulations.  When the SEMS rule came out in 2010, it appeared to make oil and gas companies responsible to BSEE for every safety issue imaginable:

§ 250.1901(a)   you must ensure that  your  SEMS program identifies, addresses, and  manages safety, environmental hazards, and impacts during the design, construction, start-up, operation, inspection, and maintenance of all new  and  existing facilities, including mobile offshore drilling units (MODU) 

I am just giving an opinion here, but that doesn’t seem to leave much room for OSHA authority.  Of course it may not matter for contractors, because operators universally take their lead on safety practices from OSHA regulations.  So the chances of a contractor being fined by OSHA for an offshore violation are relatively small, but when operators tell contractors to meet their policies on safe work practices, that generally means meeting OSHA standards.  Additionally, if BSEE decides to cite an operator or contractor, in the absence of a clear regulatory standard, it may look at accepted practice, which leads us right back to OSHA standards Again, this is just conjecture and someday all of this may be argued in court.  So if you have questions, you should consult an attorney on offshore compliance issues.

Oh, and one more thing – OSHA most definitely has authority on oil and gas facilities located in state waters, where BSEE does not have any authority.

2 Replies to “What Is OSHA’s Authority Offshore?”

  1. Ken, thanks for this article. Coming from the Drilling side of production, I have known about the MOU between the USCG/MMS and OSHA for years. Lot of people do not believe that OSHA applies offshore but believe me, when you have a bad accident or fatality the lawyers always quote the OSHA regulations…even if it is cited as Best Practice. So even if your SEMS overrides OSHA, you better have your training and procedures in place because the wrongful death attorneys will cite OSHA every time and the jury will agree that you should have been following OSHA standards as a best practice.

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