CaliforniaThe Los Angeles Fire Department has become the latest organization to sign on to Cal/OSHA’s confined space awareness campaign -- an effort to educate employers and employees about the dangers of working in confined spaces. The Oakland Fire Department is also a participant.

Cal/OSHA launched the statewide campaign in February, citing by seven confined space deaths and numerous injuries in the state in 2011 -- all of which were preventable. Cal/OSHA says its comprehensive approach to preventing further confined space deaths and injuries includes public education and media alerts, enforcement and consultation and ongoing partnerships to help increase awareness and compliance.

California's Department of Industrial Relations Director, Christine Baker, pointed out that employers need to have an effective emergency response plan in place before a critical situation arises.

Confined spaces are enclosed spaces that can be entered by workers, but have limited openings for entry or exit, and are not designed for continuous worker occupancy. Common examples include tanks, silos, pipelines, sewers, storage bins, drain tunnels and vaults. Confined spaces can be found in many industries and also in non-industrial workplaces. The 2011 California deaths occurred in a wide range of industries—a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical facility, a winery, a paint manufacturing plant and a recycling center.

One of these incidents occurred last January at Baxter Biosciences, a pharmaceutical manufacturer in Los Angeles. A 33-year old technician entered a blood plasma tank to measure its contents when he collapsed in the oxygen deficient atmosphere. Two of his colleagues entered the tank in order to attempt a rescue and collapsed as well. All three workers were extricated from the tank by the Los Angeles Fire Department. The first worker died, the second remains unconscious, and the third was injured but recovered.  

Last October, a similar scenario occurred at the Community Recycling & Recovery facility in Lamont, when a 16-year-old worker cleaning a drainage tunnel was overcome by hydrogen sulfide gas. Another worker—his brother, aged 22—rushed in to save him and was also overcome. Both workers died. Last week, Cal/OSHA levied fines totaling $166,890 for multiple violations of confined space regulations against the employer. Cal/OSHA’s criminal investigation in this case is still ongoing.

“It is even more tragic that in many cases, workers attempting to rescue their co-workers also fall victim,” said Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess. “Confined spaces can be deceptively dangerous. Employers need to assess if they have such a hazard, identify and mark those spaces, provide employee and supervisor training and on-site rescue plans and equipment.”

“In the last year alone, we have responded to three confined space rescues,” said Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Jack Wise. “It is our experience that the victims, would-be rescuers and co-workers, either fail to adhere to their emergency plans or simply do not have a plan in place, with catastrophic results.”  

Cal/OSHA has posted extensive information about confined space hazards on its website and will be providing training and outreach progams throughout the year.