OSHA Protects Construction Workers in Confined Spaces

Every American has the right to work in a safe environment, and every employer has a responsibility to provide one. Since 1970, when Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), safety standards have evolved to reflect specific risks. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes an Illinois lawyer filing a construction accident claim to bring new risks to light. In May 2015, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a fact sheet about a construction foreman who suffocated in a sewer manhole. The agency also released a new set of standards for manholes and other confined spaces. The update includes specific requirements to prevent similar accidents from happening again.

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OSHA Protects Construction Workers in Confined Spaces

New Requirements for Confined Spaces

OSHA’s new construction standards took effect on August 3, but Illinois construction accident won’t be able to file claims until “full enforcement” on January 8, 2016. After this grace period is over, all employers in residential construction must be in compliance with the new rules.

Before the update, construction workers in confined spaces were protected by General Industry OSHA standards. In 2016, employers will need to follow industry-specific standards for construction sites, including five new rules that will minimize atmospheric and physical hazards. If employers don’t do the following for employees, they will face citations and liability for damages:

  1. Coordinate with workers near the space, to prevent activities that may cause gas and other hazards to compromise the confined space.
  2. Evaluate the entire site and identify any confined spaces or permit spaces.
  3. Perform atmospheric monitoring when possible, with no interruptions.
  4. Implement a way to watch the surrounding area for flooding hazards (e.g. electronic sensor) and evacuate the confined space if necessary.
  5. Restore confined spaces to original condition after evacuation to lift any exisiting suspension of the permit.

General workplace safety is about isolating possible hazards and taking steps to prevent injury or death. However, enclosed spaces present unique risks. These changes allow OSHA to catch up with standards that have been in place for years in other industries. However, they will only protect workers if employees actually comply with every regulation and make sure their employees are safe in confined areas.

Common Construction Hazards in Confined Spaces

Construction sites in Illinois are dynamic workplaces. As workers are exposed to different materials and take on a variety of different projects, their safety precautions must change too. Because of this, construction workers are protected by specific standards that may not apply in other industries. These new standards increase that protection. Now, OSHA recognizes the unique dangers of working in enclosed areas during a construction project.

OSHA gives many examples of confined spaces in residential construction work. According to the terms the agency outlined, confined spaces include elevators, manholes, sewers, HVAC ducts, transformer vaults, turbines, chillers, silos, precast concrete units, storm drains, and any tank containing fuel or water. To comply with the new standard, employers must identify potential hazards and take steps to correct or minimize them. These hazards will depend on the condition and location of each space, but some common construction hazards include:

  • Nearby water, fuel, or other liquids that could cause flooding
  • Electrocution
  • Fire
  • Steep drops and falls
  • Lack or excess of oxygen (concentration shouldn’t be in the 19.5-23.5% range)
  • Presence of flammable gas or vapor
  • Combustible dust (fire and respiratory hazard)

According to OSHA, employers must identify each of these hazards on a detailed list. They must correct any illegal hazards, such as poor oxygen concentration or exposed wires, before beginning work in one of these spaces. They must also make sure every employee is aware of all environmental hazards.

Extra Precautions for Permit Spaces

A permit space is an enclosed space with higher risks. These risks include fire, flooding, and other threats that are severe enough to require minimal employee exposure. Employers must also protect employees who work near the space. OSHA recommends posting warning signs and explaining them to all workers. Everyone on a worksite should be aware of the extra hazards associated with some enclosed spaces. When no one is working in them, no entry should be forbidden.

What if Employers Don’t Comply?

After the grace period ends, OSHA can cite any employer that fails to train, inform, and equip their employees properly. If any employee’s safety equipment fails the new standard, the employer is in violation. If anyone gets injured as a result of an employer’s failure to follow these standards, the employer will be cited as well. It’s important for every employer to implement specific training and warning procedures, as well as a plan in case these precautions fail to prevent an emergency.

Construction workers in urban areas like that in and around Chicago are especially likely to move in and out of confined spaces. If employers do not take specific steps to prevent injury during residential construction projects, employees have the right to seek compensation. An Illinois construction accident lawyer is qualified to represent employees who were not protected because of a failure to comply with OSHA mandates.

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