Final Rule On Confined Spaces In Construction Takes New Technologies Into Account, OSHA Says

OSHA says regulators have taken into account numerous new technologies available to building industries as it rolls out a rule adding a subpart to its construction standards to tackle confined space hazards much like the general industry regulations designed to ensure protections for workers in enclosed areas, but the rule differs in significant ways from the existing standards.

The rule — more than a decade in the making under both GOP and Democratic administrations — was published Monday (May 4) in the Federal Register, and takes effect 90 days later.

Many stakeholders have long sought standards that align construction safety codes with OSHA’s regulations for manufacturing and general industry, though agency officials point out that most building firms generally adhere to the latter in actual practice. The proposed rule had gone through two major iterations under the George W. Bush and Obama OSHAs since a small-business review took place in 2003. OSHA chief David Michaels said in a conference call Friday that the rule underwent “major rewriting” in the intervening years since the rule was proposed under Bush.

OSHA’s internal estimates are that the new rule could prevent 780 serious injuries and save lives of five construction workers every year. “We know that from this day forward, workers’ lives will be saved and injuries prevented by this new rule,” he told reporters in the call.

The construction rule largely mirrors the general industry regulations, but officials say differences between the parallel rules include that under the construction standard:

  • A “competent person” must conduct a job site evaluation on sites with potential confined space hazards, while other standards do not specify who must conduct the assessment.
  • Information exchange requirements inform employers of what discussions must take place prior to worker entry into confined spaces.
  • Air contaminant and dust monitoring must be done continuously in such work areas.
  • Employers must coordinate emergency services before workers enter the confined space.
  • The definition of “isolate” as applied to confined space hazards includes employers’ use of physical barriers to eliminate the opportunity for contact between an employee and a physical hazard inside a confined space.

OSHA says the new subpart replaces OSHA’s one training requirement for confined space work with a “comprehensive standard” that includes a permit program designed to protect employees from exposure to hazards associated with work in confined spaces, including atmospheric and physical hazards.

“The final rule is similar in content and organization to the general industry confined spaces standard, but also incorporates several provisions from the proposed rule to address construction-specific hazards, accounts for advancements in technology, and improves enforceability of the requirements,” OSHA states in the rule.

Michaels in the conference call said the length of time to issue the final rule, which was 12 years since review of the proposal under the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act, was taken up by major revisions to the rule. Particularly those occurred after the transition to the Obama administration.

The history of the rule is notable, he said, in that “we listened to our stakeholders, we received comments from many stakeholders,” some of whom suggested earlier proposals would complicate many work sites. “We revised the proposal to make it substantially similar to the general industry standard,” he said. — Christopher Cole (ccole@iwpnews.com)