During the last decade, alarming numbers of offshore oil and gas facilities have been found in violation of industry or federal laws, putting worker safety and the environment at risk. Currently, there are no whistleblower anti-retaliation provisions protecting offshore oil and gas facilities workers. As a result, vast numbers of these employees have kept silent about dangerous federal violations, fearing for their jobs and paychecks.
In hopes of extending vital whistleblower protections to offshore oil and gas workers, Representative George Miller of California introduced the Offshore Oil and Gas Worker Whistleblower Protection Act of 2013. With no federal law currently protecting oil and gas workers, they face almost certain workplace retaliation after blowing the whistle on employer health and safety violations. The threat of termination is enough to deter most workers from reporting often life-threatening workplace violations.
Lack of Whistleblower Protections Leads to Tragedy
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which is the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, occurred in 2010. After claiming 11 lives and dumping 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, many Deepwater employees began to publically come forward with stories of dangerous workplace conditions and blatant violations.
Only weeks before the Deepwater oil rig exploded in the Gulf, workers on the rig allegedly complained to supervisors about unsafe conditions. Each later admitted that they feared workplace retaliation, keeping them from officially reporting or pursuing the violations further. The widow of one of the 11 workers killed during the explosion later testified before a government panel, stating that her husband had previously expressed similar concerns to her. Without whistleblower anti-retaliation provisions to protect the workers, they were essentially forced to choose between tolerating dangerous workplace conditions and facing employer retaliation.
Details of the Proposed Bill
The Offshore Oil and Gas Worker Whistleblower Protection Act of 2013 (H.R.1649) aims to extend whistleblower protections to employees who work on the Outer Continental Shelf performing oil and gas exploration, drilling, production or spill cleanup. The proposed bill would allow employees who believe they have been terminated or retaliated against for an activity that is protected (whistleblowing) to file an official complaint with the Secretary of Labor.
The bill, which is modeled after the anti-retaliation provisions contained within the federal False Claims Act, would:
- Prevent an employer from terminating or retaliating against an employee who reports concerns to the employer or a federal/state official when the employee reasonably believes the employer is violating the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA)
- Protect an employee who reports injuries or unsafe conditions, refuses to work based a true belief that the offshore work may cause injury or a spill, or refuses to perform any duty in a manner they believe violates the OCSLA
- Make a victimized employee eligible for job reinstatement, back pay and compensatory and consequential damages
- Require employers to post a visible notice explaining employee rights under the Act and provide employee training related to these rights
Why Whistleblowers Deserve to be Protected
Whistleblowers play a critical role in exposing multiple types of fraud. As a result of the federal False Claims Act, private citizens with knowledge of employer fraud are able to consult with an experienced False Claims Act attorney and file a qui tam action. Whistleblowers are responsible for revealing fraud committed against the government, financial fraud and threats to public health and safety. Recognizing the importance of whistleblowers, Congress recently enacted strict protection laws and strengthened existing whistleblower protection provisions. For example, Dodd-Frank whistleblowers are now covered under three anti-retaliation causes of action and strengthened anti-retaliation provisions of both the federal False Claims Act and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. In addition to expanding whistleblower protection on a federal level, many states have also strengthened their own whistleblower provision statutes.
When seeking advice concerning a potential qui tam action, consulting with an experienced False Claims Act attorney is essential for each whistleblower. With the increasing number of state and federal whistleblower protections, a qui tam attorney can identify and evaluate not only claims of fraudulent activity, but related workplace retaliation claims as well.