U.S. launches new "stop work" rules for safety on oil rigs

The U.S. Interior Department on Thursday laid out its latest requirements to enhance safety for offshore oil and gas drillers, as the government pushes companies to advance worker protections.

The new workplace safety rules build on a set of regulations implemented more than two years ago that mandated offshore operators submit detailed plans regarding their procedures for preventing worker accidents and other dangerous events.

The rules are also known as the Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) II regulations.

While the initial rules had been in the works for years, the regulations took on more urgency after the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico explosion and oil spill that killed 11 workers.

This latest set of measures will require companies to develop procedures that would authorize any worker witnessing unsafe activity to stop work on a rig.

The finalized rules also set new guidelines for third party safety audits that companies are required to commission and submit to Interior's offshore drilling regulator, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

"Offshore oil and gas safety starts with a robust positive safety culture, and BSEE's workplace safety rules are designed to promote that culture by eliminating complacency and making sure that companies are looking at the human factors that underlie too many accidents," said BSEE director Jim Watson in a statement.

In the aftermath of the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster, the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, the Obama administration has instituted a raft of new drilling regulations and revamped its oversight of offshore drillers.

Critics, including Republicans in Congress, have charged that some of Interior's new regulations are too onerous and may be slowing down oil and gas production.

Still, an Interior Department official said oil and gas drillers should not have trouble complying with these latest measures since companies have already made major adjustments with the implementation of the first workplace safety rules.

The original rules were "the heavy lift for industry," the department official said. "We're tweaking the first rule and adding some requirements we think improve safety and ensure continuous improvement."

The department estimates that the new measures will cost industry $17 million annually. Offshore operators will have one year to comply with most of the regulations, but they will have two years to meet the new audit standards.

(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe;editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)