I read a tragic story the other day about a 25-year-old construction worker in Chicago who drowned while re-lining pipes for the city’s sewer system during a heavy rain storm in 2013. The incident report states that the worker removed his safety harness to enter a confined space and was subsequently carried away by a torrent of rushing rain water. Although the worker’s employer, Kenny Construction, had an outstanding safety record over the previous 10 years, management could not provide an answer as to why they would have a crew working underground at that time. OSHA did investigate the incident, but Kenny was not hit with any serious violations to my knowledge.
Coincidentally, while looking up the incident reports for this story I came to learn that in May of this year OSHA released a new standard of regulations for confined spaces in the construction industry. Confined spaces are areas not necessarily designed for people, but are large enough for workers to enter and perform certain jobs. This includes areas such as tanks, boilers, ducts, silos, wells, sewers, vaults, and pipelines. Citing the continuance of employee deaths in confined spaces since the last issuance of rules (1993), an OSHA representative asserted that this new standard will greatly improve the safety of those who perform tasks in confined spaces and reduce accident and death rates.
Confined spaces as defined must meet the following criteria:
- Is large enough for a worker to enter it to perform assigned work
- Has limited means of entry or exit
- Is not designed for continuous occupancy
Permit-required confined spaces must meet one or more of these characteristics:
- Contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere
- Contains material that has the potential for engulfing an entrant
- Has an internal configuration such that an entrant could be trapped asphyxiated by converging walls or a sloped floor
- Contains any other recognized serious safety or health hazard
Because they are more inherently dangerous, permit-required confined spaces are more heavily regulated and require employers to develop a written program to address all potential risks associated with who may enter the space, training, safe entry and exit of the space, appropriate safety equipment, monitoring space conditions, monitoring the employee from outside the space while the work is performed, and emergency procedures.
The new standard includes five key requirements for employers to manage work performed in confined spaces:
- More detailed provisions for coordinating activities to ensure that hazards are not introduced to a confined space by workers performing tasks outside of the space
- A competent person must evaluate the work site to identify confined spaces
- Continuous atmospheric monitoring whenever possible
- Continuous monitoring of engulfment hazards
- Allowing of the suspension of a permit, instead of cancelation, in the event of changes from the entry conditions list on a permit or an unexpected event requiring evacuation
These new regulations mark an important step in reducing accident and fatality rates for construction workers. By embracing this change, companies can lay out a vision to employees of improving safety by implementing new procedures to meet the current standard. Once new policies are in place, supervisors and safety leaders can influence lower level workers to become more aware of their surroundings, exhibit greater caution, and follow all safety rules while performing tasks in confined spaces. Hopefully, organizations will utilize the new regulations in daily practice and I will be able to report a sharp reduction in fatality rates associated with confined spaces in the years to come.