OSHA Publishes Final Rule on Confined Spaces in Construction
OSHA’s Final Rule on Confined Spaces in Construction was published May 4 in the Federal Register, closing the book on a rulemaking process that began more than a decade ago. The rule, which becomes effective Aug. 3, 2015, will provide construction workers with protections similar to those provided to workers in manufacturing and general industry, with some differences tailored to the construction industry. “The real difference between confined spaces in construction work and those in non-construction workplaces is from the perspective of the employee who actually has to enter the space,” says J. Rush Bowers, MSPH, CIH, CSP, Chair of AIHA’s Confined Spaces Committee. Bowers, who is a senior project manager for industrial hygiene with Terracon Consultants, explains that confined spaces in construction are transitory for workers, who may only enter a space for one shift to perform tasks such as coating the inside of a tank that’s being installed. In general industry, employees who work at facilities with confined spaces may enter them more frequently and thus are more familiar with the hazards associated with those spaces. Adding to the variables in construction, multiple employers will often have employees on the job at the same worksite. The new rule helps clarify the relationship between those employers and requires them to exchange certain safety information. “The general industry standard is more vague as to how [this communication] should occur,” says Bowers. “It’s one-directional. In the construction standard, contractors are required to provide information to the host employer and vice versa.” The construction rule also contains a “competent person” requirement, which Bowers notes is common in construction-related standards, but is not included in the confined spaces rule for general industry. “This requirement will improve the safety of confined spaces because it actually calls out a specific person who has to make certain judgments,” he says.
However, Bowers would have preferred to see more explicit requirements or responsibilities for that competent person. As written, he says, parts of the standard are open to interpretation, such as situations in which employees may be required to take items into confined spaces that could increase a hazard. For an employee coating the inside of a tank, Bowers says, “Maybe he’s using something that may be toxic or may give off flammable vapor. I would have liked to see a very specific requirement that a competent person has to evaluate the characteristics of the materials being taken into that space and what kind of hazards they may pose.” The rule also requires employers in construction to continuously monitor hazards, and includes a requirement for an early warning system if there’s any chance for engulfment. Though the rule was more than 10 years in the making, Bowers points out that the lengthy process is not unusual: a 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office found that, on average, an OSHA rule requires more than seven years to develop and issue. “The consequences are pretty high for not generating rules like this quickly,” Bowers says, noting that, according to OSHA, the new rule will prevent approximately five deaths and another 780 injuries per year. “But OSHA has their hands tied by Congress to follow the required rulemaking process, which takes time.” The rule is available in the Federal Register. For more information, visit OSHA’s Confined Spaces Web page.
Confined spaces in construction are transitory for workers, who may only enter a space for one shift to perform tasks such as coating the inside of a tank that’s being installed.