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Safety Management Insights

OSHA’s New Rule for Confined Spaces in Construction

Posted by Don Brown on Aug 16, 2016 11:30:00 AM

create-a-safety-culture.jpgOSHA’s penalty increases aren’t the only big safety news this summer. As of August 2015, the government standard for osha confined spaces standards—including manholes, tanks and crawl spaces—has been updated to account for construction worker safety. Working in these small spaces presents workers with life-threatening hazards, and most are not intended for continuous occupancy. They are also notoriously difficult to exit during emergencies and their occupants are often exposed to toxic substances, electrocution, explosions and asphyxiation.

In fact, last year two workers were asphyxiated while repairing leaks in a manhole—the second dying as he entered to save the first. “In the construction industry, entering confined spaces is often necessary, but fatalities like these don’t have to happen,” Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said during an OSHA conference. “This new rule will significantly improve the safety of construction workers who enter confined spaces. In fact, we estimate that it will prevent about 780 serious injuries every year.”

In general, confined space hazards can be prevented by locking moving parts in place, de-energizing electrical parts, blocking steam pipes, draining liquids and monitoring air quality and ventilation. However, the new law for the construction industry differs from the general industry standards in a few important ways.

Coordinated Activities

When multiple companies are using the same worksite, additional provisions will ensure that new employees don’t introduce new hazards to confined spaces already in use. A “host employer” must provide information to the controlling contractor about potential hazards of any confined spaces, as well as the precautions implemented for worker safety. In turn, the controlling contractor shares that information with each company sharing the workspace.

Competent Person Clause

The old standard simply required each employer to evaluate their worksite and identify its confined spaces. The new rule for confined spaces requires a “competent person” (or multiple people) to evaluate those spaces and identify their risks. This person could be a supervisor, engineer or member of senior management, depending on their credentials.

Atmospheric Monitoring

The general industry standard doesn’t have a specific requirement for regular atmospheric tests, but the new rule does. OSHA also requires employers to implement an early-warning system that constantly monitors for engulfment hazards, such as flash flooding.

Safety Training

Regular training should already be a part of your overall safety plan, but the new confined spaces rule specifically requires safety training in a language that workers understand.

With the exception of excavations, underground construction and a few other specified, specialty industries, the new confined spaces rule will affect every construction business. “Unlike most general industry worksites, construction sites are continually evolving, with the number and characteristics of confined spaces changing as work progress,” commented David Michaels, OSHA Assistant Secretary of Labor. This rule emphasizes training, continuous worksite evaluation and communication requirements to further protect workers’ safety and health.”

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