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Published: December, 2007; Vol 4, Num 7
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Fourteen Years Late,
OSHA Issues Confined Space NPRM

It would be merely embarrassing if it were not so tragic.

Three months after OSHA – the nation’s regulatory and enforcement agency for occupational safety and health – let pass without comment its latest, self-imposed deadline, the agency startled the construction industry with an unexpected, November 28 notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) for a confined space standard. It has been 14 years since OSHA first said it would develop such a standard.

“Fourteen years is much too long to wait for a standard, but we applaud OSHA’s announcement,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan.  “Every OSHA delay over these years has meant further unnecessary loss of life. Just since August, when the agency missed its last deadline, another five construction workers were killed in a Colorado confined space catastrophe.”

OSHA has an acceptable confined space standard for general industry but, despite on-going promises, has never established one for construction. The long trail of missed delivery dates ranges back to 1994 when the agency was sued by the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). As part of that settlement, OSHA adopted its general industry standard and agreed to develop a separate standard for construction. Fourteen years later, construction workers are still waiting…and dying. 

In the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at least six construction workers died in confined space incidents in 2006 (19 in all industries). With the recent deaths in Colorado, it looks like 2007 will be even worse.

OSHA’s general pattern of standards avoidance and delay is well-documented. Perhaps the most graphic example is the hearing conservation standard for construction, promised 24 years ago and now with the date of its “Next Action Undermined.” The hex-chrome standard and the PPE payment rule were developed only after the agency was sued in federal court. The LHSFNA highlighted the standards problem in Congressional testimony last May. It now appears that Congress will mandate a timetable from OSHA for many of the longer-delayed standards in its appropriations bill this fall.

“OSHA’s neglect of standards development is a slap in the face of all construction workers,” says O’Sullivan, “but the regular announcement of false delivery dates shows just how unaccountable to the public interest OSHA has become. Though it was again late, we’re glad to see this week’s progress on a confined space standard. We demand OSHA tackle other standards immediately.” 

In the Colorado incident, a crew was doing scheduled maintenance in a power tunnel of a hydroelectric plant 45 miles west of Denver. The five workers who died were employees of a California subcontractor that had been cited by OSHA on several occasions over the last six years. The subcontractor had sandblasted the inside of a steel-and-concrete pipe, and the crew was applying an epoxy coating to prevent corrosion. Apparently, when the epoxy spray gun became clogged, methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), a solvent, was added to the hopper to warm and liquefy the mixture. MEK, however, is a colorless, flammable thinner whose vapors are heavier-than-air, sink to the ground and travel long distances in confined space. When the machine’s thermostat kicked in, it sparked the vapors, spreading a fire up the tunnel that trapped the five men. Unburned, they appeared to have suffocated. OSHA is investigating the incident and, despite the lack of a confined space standard for construction, will determine if other applicable safety procedures were followed.

“This incident shows how procedures that may be safe in open space can be fatal in confined space,” says LHSFNA’s Senior Safety and Health Specialist Travis Parsons. “It’s just a different kind of environment, with hazards that follow a different set of rules. Workers and supervisors must have special training so they will recognize and avoid these kinds of dangers.”

The LHSFNA publishes a Confined Spaces health alert that provides basic guidance to workers and supervisors about how to minimize the confined space dangers. It is available to Laborers and participating LIUNA signatory employers through our online catalogue. Other resources are compiled on Jordan Bararb’s Confined Space blog. Though not specific to construction, NIOSH  and OSHA have topic pages on confined space hazards, and OSHA publishes a downloadable Confined Space Advisor.  And, of course, training in confined space hazards is available in nearly all of the LIUNA training funds. Interested parties can contact Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund at 860-974-0800.

[By Steve Clark]