In today’s Federal Register, OSHA published a proposed rule to protect construction workers from the hazards of working in confined spaces.  This proposal–just a proposed rule at this point—has been 14 years in the making.  It is something that OSHA promised to do as part of a 1994 settlement agreement with the Steelworkers.  A rule has been in place since 1993 to protect workers in so-called “general industry” from working in confined spaces (e.g., storage tanks, sewers, silos) with requirements for measuring the air quality inside the space so that workers know whether respirators or breathing apparatuses are required, and extensive safety training so that rescues don’t turn deadly for co-workers.  

This proposed rule for construction workers was submitted to OMB for review in mid-July and was returned to OSHA on October 12.  The public comment period on the rule runs until January 28, 2008.

The preamble to the proposed rule notes that the document:

“reflects input from stakeholder meetings, from OSHA’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health, and from the statutorily required Small Business Regulatory Enforcement and Fairness Act (SBREFA) review process.  For example, a provision that would have addressed working in hazardous-enclosed spaces (spaces designed for human occupancy but subject to a hazardous atmosphere), which small business entities participating in the SBREFA review process considered burdensome and unnecessary, was eliminated because OSHA believes that existing construction standards (for example, 29 CFR 1926.55) adequately address these hazards.”

It will be interesting to see how this provision is debated during the public hearings and in the public comments.

The preamble also notes: 

“OSHA estimates that each year there are 6.44 fatalities and 967 injuries experienced by employees working in confined spaces addressed by this proposed rule. OSHA has preliminary determined that the proposed rule, when implemented properly by employers, would reduce the average number of fatalities and injuries in confined spaces covered by the proposed standard by about 90% (6 fatalities prevented annually and 880 injuries prevented annually).”

That’s pretty cool.  OSHA is suggesting that if the provisions of the rule were to be properly implemented by employers in the construction industry, nearly all of the fatalities and injuries each year would be prevented.

I don’t expect a final version of this vitally important rule to be issued by OSHA with only 13 months remaining in the Bush Administration.  It will be up to the next Administration to finish it promptly and provide construction workers the same protections from confined space hazards afforded to workers in all other occupations.