Passed in 1953, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) was intended to extend the rights afforded by the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) to those employees working aboard vessels and platforms on the outer continental shelf area of the U.S. The LHWCA in turn was designed to provide coverage for injured workers not covered by the Jones Act, a maritime law for seamen injured by negligence. Each law has led to another, expanding the rights to injury compensation to a broader group of maritime workers.
The Jones Act provides compensation for only those maritime workers who fit the definition of a seaman. The LHWCA expanded compensation in the case of injury or illness to include harbor workers, shipbuilders, and other maritime non-seamen. The OCSLA further extends these rights to compensation to include maritime workers employed on the outer continental shelf. The law specifically covers workers on oil rigs, because according to definition, they are not seamen. They do not work aboard navigable vessels and therefore do not qualify under the Jones Act.
The History of the OCSLA
The OCSLA was passed in 1953 as an extension of the rights provided to harbor workers and longshoremen by the LHWCA, but it originated with an older law. The Submerged Lands Act, or SLA, gave jurisdiction to the coastal states over lands off their coasts, less than three miles from shore. The law also gave lease rights to the federal government, through the Department of the Interior, for oil and mineral exploration and exploitation in these areas.
The OCSLA was created as an extension of the SLA and expanded the federal government’s jurisdiction to underwater regions of the outer continental shelf, including submerged lands, subsoil, and the seafloor. This jurisdiction extension meant that workers on the outer continental shelf were entitled to the same rights as those covered by the LHWCA, although the nature of their work did not meet the definition of status and situs according to that law. To compensate and ensure that these workers were covered, the OCSLA was created to include these offshore workers in the federal workers’ compensation program.
The Outer Continental Shelf Defined
The outer continental shelf is as geographical and geological area, but it is also a political definition. It is part of the shelf of land that extends from the continent, out in to the ocean, before the depth of the ocean drops rapidly at its edge. As defined by the federal government, the outer continental shelf extends nine nautical miles beyond the baseline off the Gulf coasts of Texas and Florida.
The start of the outer continental shelf is only three imperial nautical miles from the coast of Louisiana. For all other coastal states on the Gulf and on the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the outer continental shelf is defined as three nautical miles beyond the baseline. The baseline is the point from which the territorial sea is measured by breadth.
Workers Covered by the OCSLA
The workers covered by the OCSLA are those employed on permanent or temporary facilities fixed on the seafloor or floating on the outer continental shelf. These could include oil rigs, artificial islands, natural gas rigs, floating dry docks, wind turbines, floating production systems, and floating production, storage, and offloading systems.
To qualify for compensation from the OCSLA these workers must have been injured or made ill while doing work that contributed to exploring the outer continental shelf for natural resources, or while extracting, developing, or removing those natural resources. These qualifications are similar to the status and situs requirements for the LHWCA. In this case workers must do work that contributes to the industry aboard the platform or rig and do it out on the outer continental shelf as opposed to on a vessel at sea.
The OCSLA and the LHWCA
The LHWCA was passed by Congress to provide a workers’ compensation scheme to those employees working in the maritime industry, but not covered by the Jones Act. These include dock workers, ship mechanics, stevedores, shipbreakers, and others doing work related to the commercial business of a ship, but not on the navigable ship itself.
The OCSLA provides similar benefits to those workers on the outer continental shelf. The type of compensation provided by both laws includes lost wages while the injury keeps the worker off the job, medical expenses, compensation for permanent disabilities, and survivor benefits for any dependents in the event of a fatal accident. Unlike the Jones Act, negligence does not need to have caused the accident or illness for damages to be recovered. The worker only needs to have been injured while doing the duties of his job to qualify.
The Adjacent State Rule
If a maritime worker is injured offshore, jurisdiction may fall to a state if federal law does not apply. If the injured worker does not make a claim against a federal law like the OCSLA or the Jones Act, he or she may sue the employer, in which case jurisdiction would fall to the nearest state adjacent to the location of the offshore accident. If you are injured offshore and are unsure whether federal maritime laws apply or if you need state jurisdiction, a qualified maritime lawyer can help you decide the best course of action.
Workers Injured On Shore
A recent Supreme Court decision upheld decisions made in the U.S. Circuit Courts that allowed oil rig workers to claim compensation under the OCSLA even if not injured or killed on the offshore rig. The case, Pacific Offshore Operators, LLC v. Valladolid, involved the death of an oil rig worker at the employer’s on shore facility. The employer originally denied the widow any compensation for the death, which was caused by an accident.
The widow took her case to court, and the employer appealed all the way to the Supreme Court after lower courts found in her favor. The argument by the employer was that OCSLA didn’t apply to this worker’s death, as he was not working on the oil rig at the time of the accident. The courts disagreed with this and stated that because he was conducting work that supported the rig’s operation, he qualified under the OCSLA. The courts claimed that denying the widow benefits was in violation of the intent of the law. This finding means that future workers injured onshore, while performing duties that support an outer continental shelf rig, should be granted the right to compensation under the OCSLA.
Working in any kind of maritime industry is risky and often dangerous. Even when there is no negligence or unseaworthiness involved, accidents can happen and injuries and fatalities happen more than in other industries. It is important that the OCSLA extended coverage for injured and killed workers to those stationed on the outer continental shelves. Contact an experienced and knowledgeable attorney working in maritime law if you believe you have a case and that you are owed compensation through the OCSLA or any other federal maritime law.