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The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is proposing a change designed to strengthen regulations that govern work in confined spaces when employees perform new construction. Under the proposed change, employers (both contractors and public works departments) would be required to determine whether a jobsite consists of a confined space and whether there are hazards in that space, and to take appropriate measures to ensure the safety of their workers.

Once a determination is made, the confined space would then be classified under one of four definitions, each of which has its own set of requirements: Isolated-Hazard Confined Space, Controlled-Atmosphere Confined Space, Permit-Required Confined Space, and Continuous System-Permit-Required Confined Space.

The proposed change would affect public works departments largely in three areas: coordination with contractors and subcontractors, record-keeping, and equipment requirements.

The proposed standard is far from being approved and implemented, and a host of changes — such as the required use of equipment for atmospheric monitoring and rescue and retrieval of personnel working in confined spaces — may be on the horizon. OSHA may implement it as early as 2010, but some safety managers expect it to take longer.

Still, they argue that now is the time for public works departments to begin preparing for such a change.

Injuries in the construction industry are among the highest in the goods-producing sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2006 there were more injuries resulting in lost work (two incidents per 100 full-time workers) than any other industry except transportation and warehousing (nearly three incidents).

OSHA issued a confined-space standard for general industry in 1993, but acknowledging that it recognizes additional dangers in the construction industry, the federal agency has been crafting the proposed change to the current standard that governs it — a standard that construction industry lobbyists argue is flimsy and open to interpretation.

Currently, public works agencies performing routine maintenance are covered under the general industry standard, but new construction or major reconfiguration (such as replacing a section of a water main) fall under the current construction standard. OSHA defines construction work as major alterations or repairs, including painting and decorating, as well as the reconfiguration of a space or the installation of “substantially new equipment.” Refurbishing of existing equipment is considered maintenance.

“There's no comprehensive standard for construction in confined spaces,” says Bill Kojola, industrial hygienist with the AFL-CIO.

EXISTING STANDARD FLAWS

The current standard defines enclosed spaces and provides general examples, such as sewers, pipelines, storage tanks, and boilers. Its requirements are simply that employees entering confined spaces must be notified about the potential hazards of the spaces.