OSHA today issued a final rule to increase protections for construction workers in confined spaces.

“This rule will provide construction workers with protections already afforded to workers in manufacturing and general industry, with some differences tailored to the construction industry,” said OSHA chief David Michaels, who predicted that it will prevent 800 serious injuries and save five lives a year.

Manholes, crawl spaces, tanks and other confined spaces are not intended for continuous occupancy. They are also difficult to exit in an emergency. People working in confined spaces face life-threatening hazards including toxic substances, electrocutions, explosions and asphyxiation. Unlike most general industry worksites, construction worksites are continuously evolving, with the number and characteristics of confined spaces changing as the work progresses.

Requirements in new rule that differ from those in the general industry rule include:

  • A competent person must conduct the initial jobsite evaluation
  • Information exchange requirements inform employers what discussions must be conducted and when during confined space entry
  • Air contaminant and engulfment monitoring must be done continuously, as the technology is readily available for most hazards
  • For substances where continuous monitoring technology is not available, periodic monitoring is required
  • The rule explicitly requires employers to coordinate emergency services before workers enter the confined space
  • During controlled atmosphere entry, employers must isolate physical hazards rather than eliminate all of them, such as using lockout/tagout, blocking off access to struck-by hazards.

“This is not inconsistent with interpretations issued for the general industry rule, but is clarified in the final rule for construction,” noted Michaels, who said the final rule could have saved the lives of two workers killed in Georgetown, Idaho last year.

One man was overcome by fumes and fell into three feet of water at the bottom of a manhole. His uncle, who was the site superintendent, entered the manhole to rescue his nephew and was also overcome by the fumes. A volunteer attempted to rescue the men using his own self-contained breathing apparatus but the mask leaked and the volunteer had to stop the rescue attempt. Emergency medical technicians arrived approximately 45 minutes after the first man lost consciousness. Neither of the two men survived.

“With proper planning, ventilation, rescue training, proper equipment and prior engagement with local emergency services,” said Michaels, both men could be alive today.

The rule will be published in the Federal Register on Monday May 4. All of its provisions will go into effect on August 3, 2015.

OSHA has created a new website that contains FAQs and educational Fact Sheets about the rule.