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Kline Statement: Consideration of H.R. 5851, the Offshore Oil and Gas Worker Whistleblower Protection Act of 2010

Whistleblower protections are a longstanding part of our federal safety and health laws. Simply put, they protect workers’ ability to speak freely about dangers in the workplace. They allow working men and women to protect themselves and their coworkers.

The ultimate goal of our worker safety laws should be that no worker ever needs to blow the whistle. We need a culture of safety in our workplaces – a system in which employers have the information and resources they need to comply with the law and avoid unnecessary risk to workers’ health and safety.

But in those rare instances where employers are not following the law and workers’ safety is at risk, we offer protections to those individuals who speak up.

These protections are widely available to workers and enforced by the Whistleblower Protection Program at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. However, we recently became aware that a gap may exist in those protections.

Safety on offshore oil rigs is overseen by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, unlike most workplaces, where safety is overseen by OSHA. As a result, it is not clear whether these workers are covered by the OSH Act’s whistleblower protections or any of the 17 other statutes enforced by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program. Some might argue oil rig workers are covered by the Maritime Transportation and Security Act, while others point to a 1983 agreement in which OSHA retained whistleblower authority for these workers.

In the few days since this legislation was introduced, we have found confusion and conflicting information. This confusion was illustrated in recent news accounts detailing the experiences of workers on the Deepwater Horizon who were concerned about safety practices on the rig, but were afraid to voice those concerns.

If workers themselves believe they can be fired or otherwise retaliated against for identifying safety concerns, we must create or restate those protections. It is as simple as that.

Yet the bill before us is not so simple.

H.R. 5851 creates a brand new whistleblower framework for any individual directly or indirectly involved with a company that drills on the Outer Continental Shelf. We all agree on the need to clarify protections for workers on the rigs. But what about other workers – those who are clearly already covered by current law.

H.R. 5851 adds a new layer of legal processes, deadlines, and remedies for workers who are already covered. It creates legal confusion, particularly for those workers who would now be covered by parallel and possibly conflicting statutes.

I am also troubled by the differences between these new whistleblower protections and those existing under current law. This bill seems to prioritize resolution by the federal courts, adding costs and delaying results for workers who simply want to remain on the job.

These are the types of questions normally addressed through hearings and committee votes. Members weigh the opinions of federal regulatory officials, legal experts, industry personnel, and workers themselves.

We evaluate which agency would be best suited to enforce protections and remedies under the law. And we prevent duplication and confusion by clearly defining which workers are covered.

Unfortunately, we did not use that process for H.R. 5851. It was never given a committee hearing. It was never given a committee vote.

Last month, the committee held a hearing to examine broad jurisdictional questions about which federal agency is ultimately responsible for worker safety on offshore oil rigs. We heard from the Coast Guard, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, OSHA, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Those agencies told us they did not know which federal whistleblower laws, if any, applied to workers on oil rigs on the Outer Continental Shelf. There was confusion. Since that time, the committee has heard no further testimony, received no further information, and considered no legislation.

Yet on Monday of this week, the majority introduced H.R. 5851 and promptly announced members of the full House would be asked to cast a vote on whether these are the best protections for workers on oil rigs. And as has become all too common, we are here under a closed rule, with no amendments being considered.

Mr. Speaker, this is a serious issue and it deserves a serious process – one it has not been given. I reserve the balance of my time.

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