2006 was a particularly dangerous year for water and wastewater treatment plant operators. One was burned when gas venting from a pressurized sewer line ignited. Someone removing a plug from a newly installed but not-yet-in-use sewer vault suffocated when carbon dioxide sucked all of the oxygen out of the space. Another wasn’t wearing respiratory protection and died of hydrogen sulfide inhalation.

The next year, OSHA began developing rules designed to better-protect people who work in sewers, manholes, boilers, compactors, ductwork, elevator pits, equipment housings, hoppers, lift stations, pipelines, storage bins, storm drains, tanks, towers, tunnels, vaults, vessels, and water treatment pits.

These jobsites are not intended for continuous occupancy, and they’re tough to get out of in an emergency. They emit and trap toxic and combustible vapors. They may not be dangerous when an employee enters them, but could become so at any time because they’re near, connected to, or part of a dangerous confined space. When they do, escape is difficult, time-consuming, or otherwise complicated.

On Oct. 2, OSHA began enforcing rules that address these dynamic worksite situations. The agency expects the new Confined Spaces in Construction standard to prevent 800 serious injuries annually by requiring employers to determine what kinds of spaces their workers are in, what hazards could be present, how to keep workers safe from those hazards, what training workers should receive, and how to rescue those workers if anything goes wrong.

State and local government employees aren’t covered by OSHA, but are protected in the 28 states that have an OSHA-Approved State Plan.

However, public works departments in the remaining states shouldn’t dismiss the new standard because “OSHA doesn’t apply to us.” Doing so risks significant financial consequences vis-à-vis workers compensation and survivors’ death benefits.

It also raises an ethical issue: Do public agencies have an obligation to provide a place of employment that’s free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm?

“If the answer is ‘yes,’ employees required to enter a confined space should do so with their employer’s commitment to their safety,” says Jeff Bowman, environmental training coordinator at Texas A&M Engineering Extension Services, Infrastructure & Safety Training (see sidebar).

Next page: Adapted from another OSHA standard