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House passes important whistleblower protections for offshore oil workers

Today, the House passed the Offshore Oil and Gas Worker Whistleblower Protection Act of 2010, a bill designed to improve the safety of offshore drilling rigs by allowing employees to alert superiors and safety inspectors of dangerous working conditions without fear of retaliation or discrimination. The bill will also protect employees who refuse to work in unsafe conditions.

Just weeks before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, workers on the rig complained about unsafe conditions and said they feared retaliation if they reported hazards, according to the New York Times. The widow of one of the 11 workers killed on the rig told a government panel that her husband had expressed similar concerns to her. These employees should not have been forced to choose between working in dangerous conditions or facing retaliation.

In addition to protecting workers on offshore rigs, this bill also protects workers engaged in oil spill cleanup efforts in response to the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Such an environment is inherently dangerous, and there have already been reports of illnesses among cleanup workers. These employees are working to clean up BP’s mess and should be free to speak out if they are exposed to unreasonable hazards.

Public Citizen applauds the passage of this legislation, and we urge Congress to recognize that dangerous working conditions do not solely exist offshore by extending whistleblower protections to all of America’s workers. According to a recent NPR story, employees at the Upper Big Branch mine that exploded earlier this year had alerted their superiors at Massey of instances of tampering with and disabling of methane detectors in the mine. One employee who had been particularly vocal about his concerns was fired, others were scared to speak out and alert mine safety officials. The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety and Health Act of 2010, which was recently reported out of committee, would provide whistleblower protections to miners and other employees, allowing workers to speak up about unsafe conditions before it is too late.