By Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer - It’s taken more than 20 years, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a final rule to protect workers in confined spaces.  And OSHA says that implementing it could save deaths and injuries of almost 800 construction workers a year – some 96 percent of those who die or get hurt in confined-space tragedies.

The rule, unveiled May 4 and scheduled to take effect on August 3, is designed to end worker exposure to hazards in confined spaces – spaces where there’s only one way in and it’s tough to get out, such as manholes, crawl spaces and tanks.

Six workers die each year from accidents in confined spaces, OSHA says, and another 812 are injured.  The rule is designed to save between five and six of the lives and 780 of the injuries yearly, it adds.

The hazards those workers face include toxic substances, electrocution, asphyxiation and explosions.  Construction workers – especially those who try to rescue colleagues in trouble -- are particularly vulnerable to such hazards and that’s why OSHA created a special rule covering them, agency director Dr. David Michaels, a public health specialist, said.

The Center to Protect Workers’ Rights, the union-created safety organization for the construction industry, agrees.  Its latest warning circular on confined spaces, issued last year, warns that: “More than a third of the confined space deaths happen to untrained co-workers or friends who try to rescue a worker who has collapsed in a confined space (their emphasis).”

Your employer must train you for confined space work,” CPWR adds.  “An online course is not adequate. Know possible hazards before entering and be sure they are addressed in the entry plan. Make sure there is an emergency plan in place. Don’t assume nothing will go wrong; confined spaces are unforgiving. 75% of workers killed in confined spaces had no training or only on-the-job training.

But training isn’t enough, OSHA’s new rule says.

OSHA’s current general rule “required employers only to train employees who work in confined spaces,” the agency explained.  “It did not address how to protect trained employees while they are working in such spaces, nor did it address the actions of employers outside the spaces engaged in activities that might harm employees inside the spaces.”

The new rule says construction workers will have protections similar to those in factories and general industry – but with added protections tailored to their industry.  One is ordering multiple employers share vital safety information and continuously monitor hazards, Michaels said.  They can do that now thanks to technological advances over the last few decades.

"Unlike most general industry worksites, construction sites are continually evolving, with the number and characteristics of confined spaces changing as work progresses. This rule emphasizes training, continuous worksite evaluation and communication requirements to further protect workers' safety and health," he said.

Besides the manholes, crawl spaces and tanks, the new rule covers construction workers in bins, boilers, pits -- such as elevator, escalator, pump and valve pits -- fuel, chemical, water and gas tanks, incinerators, scrubbers, sewers, transformer vaults, heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning ducts, storm drains and water mains, drilled shafts, silos and step-up transformers, among other confined spaces.

It doesn’t cover workers in underground construction or excavations.  General OSHA rules cover those workers.

“The programmatic approach of the final rule includes provisions for identifying confined spaces and the hazards they may contain, allowing employers to organize the work to avoid entry into a potentially hazardous space, removing hazards prior to entry to avoid employee exposure, restricting entry through a permit system where employers cannot remove the hazard, providing appropriate testing and equipment when entry is required and arranging for rescue services to remove entrants from a confined space when necessary,” the rule says.

OSHA’s hand was forced in 2000, after it started the whole long rule-making process, by a Steelworkers lawsuit the agency and the union settled six years before.  But its proposal dragged on through stakeholders’ meetings, comments from small businesses and other obstacles all the way through the GOP George W. Bush administration.

OSHA did not say why, six years after Bush left office, it took so long to issue the final rule.  OSHA did say some commenters – it didn’t say who – asked if they could choose between obeying the general industry confined space standard, which is less specific, or this one.  OSHA said no.

The two construction industry trade groups – the more worker-friendly Associated General Contractors and the anti-worker radical right Associated Builders and Contractors – had no immediate comment on OSHA’s rule.  Lawmakers have yet to comment on OSHA’s new rule.

OSHA reminded construction firms that they must still protect workers outside the confined spaces, too.

“For situations in which none of the construction standards apply, the employer was still required to comply with the general-duty requirement of the OSH Act to ‘furnish to each of its employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees,’” the new rule says.  “But this ‘general duty’” to protect workers “is often more difficult for OSHA to enforce and does not provide the same level of guidance and safety information provided in a standard,” the agency admits.      

Article by Mark Gruenberg, editor, Press Associates News Service