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Building Safety into the Construction Industry: The New OSHA Construction Work Confined Spaces Standard

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Last year was an eventful one for OSHA with respect to its rules for worker safety in the construction industry. A new standard for "construction work" in confined spaces – Subpart AA of 29 CFR 1926 of the Code of Federal Regulations – took effect in 2015 after several years in the making. The standard is aimed at preventing construction workers’ injuries or fatalities by either eliminating or isolating hazards in confined spaces at construction sites. It applies to all construction workers who might be exposed to confined space hazards, such as those posed by features ranging from sewers to crawl spaces and from storage bins to trenches – and a host of others where spaces and their entrances are tight.

Many workplaces contain spaces that are considered "confined" because although they might not be designed for extended human occupation, they are still large enough for workers to enter and perform tasks.

The new standard describes the requirements for practices and procedures to protect those involved in construction work at a job site with one or more confined spaces. The previous rules that applied to confined spaces in the construction industry required only that employees be trained to work in them. Since injuries and fatalities continued to occur, OSHA concluded there was more to be done from a regulatory standpoint and so looked at its rules for confined space work in other industries. A proposed rule for construction industry confined spaces was first published in 2007, leading to a final rule issued in May 2015 that became enforceable as of Oct. 2, 2015.The new rule expands on the training component by requiring employers to determine not only the appropriate training for employees, but to determine the kinds of environments they are working in, what hazards might exist there, how those hazards should be made safe, and to establish rescue practices.

Data gathered by the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics' Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries program found that fatal injuries in confined spaces went from a low of 81 in 1998 to a high of 100 in 2000, averaging 92 fatalities per year in a five-year period. OSHA said it estimates the new rule will protect at least 800 construction workers per year from serious injuries and will help cut down on the number of life-threatening hazards they encounter in confined spaces.
Some hazards in confined spaces may be obvious and easily identified. Others, such as many atmospheric hazards, may not.

Since confined spaces often have little natural ventilation, they can harbor air contaminants that compromise the body's ability to transport or use oxygen and/or have direct toxicological effects. Toxic gases such as carbon monoxide or hydrogen sulfide (sewer gas) can exist in a confined space due to production processes, through the natural breakdown of a substance, and/or from work activities such as welding or torch cutting performed in the space – processes that can also lead to oxygen depletion. Fortunately, such hazards can be avoided if identified and addressed before work is undertaken. Multi-gas monitoring is a practice commonly used in most confined spaces to measure levels of oxygen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide as well as combustible gas concentrations before entry is allowed.

At Workplace Safety & Health Co., our primary concern is to help customers reduce injuries and illnesses while promoting their profitability through sound health and safety management practices. Whether your work environment is predominately indoors or outdoors, our consultants can determine your business's air quality exposures through monitoring, mapping, surveys and evaluations that include qualitative air contaminant hazard assessments, air monitoring, and quantitative air assessments.

With our experience in assessing thousands of confined spaces in a wide range of industries, Workplace Safety & Health Co. can help your organization attain a “best practice” level of compliance. Give us a call or visit our website today to learn more.

Mr. Griffith has a received his bachelors degree in Environmental Health from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He is a Certified Industrial Hygienist and president of Workplace Safety & Health Company. He has over 35 years of industrial hygiene, safety, loss control and consulting experience. Chemical monitoring, noise measurement, program development and management, risk assessment and computer management of health and safety data are areas of particular strength. Mr. Griffith is a member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) at the local and national level. He is also active in the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE).

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