Cal/OSHA Puts Renewed Focus on Confined Space Programs

Confined spaces represent some of the most hazardous environments that any worker will ever encounter. Cal/OSHA has long warned about the high-risk nature of working in restricted spaces like sewers and utility tunnels that can harbor unsuspected or unrecognized perils.

String of Preventable Deaths Prompts Initiative

Just last year, 7 workers in California lost their lives in confined space accidents. That’s a huge increase over the average of 2 workers who usually die in such accidents per year in this state. This upswing in fatalities has prompted DIOSH to begin an initiative to focus more attention on this critical issue via a Confined Space Emphasis Program.

Does only 7 deaths in a state the size of California seem a fairly low number? Ironically, the rarity of actual confined space accidents plays a role in making them so high risk. Part of the problem is that those employers who only occasionally send employees to work in confined spaces simply don’t think about what’s involved. They also have no idea what to do when an emergency arises.

Employers are Fatally Unprepared

Director of the UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program, Michael Wilson, and his team conducted a study of 21 area companies. Only 1 out of 3 had any rescue plan in place for confined space accidents. The rest thought an appropriate response was simply to call 911 and ask for the fire department. This action places firefighters in a very dangerous situation. Firefighters rarely encounter this particular type of emergency rescue situation – and every confined space is different and poses different hazards. There’s simply no way to train firefighters to anticipate every possible confined space rescue scenario.

These emergency rescue workers often become victims of confined space fatalities themselves. In fact, 60% of confined space deaths occur among rescuers – many of them firefighters. If employers don’t have a thorough understanding of what they are sending rescue workers to face, they certainly bear some responsibility for the deaths that result.

What Does OSHA Want?

Cal/OSHA is not issuing new rules or regulations governing confined spaces. Instead, the agency is seeking to increase employer compliance with existing guidelines. This includes the following:

  • Employee and supervisor training on safe work procedures, hazard controls, and rescue procedures
  • Effective rescue procedures which are immediately available onsite

Employers at public agencies must take responsibility for preventing confined space deaths among worker and contractors by creating onsite rescue plans that address the specific hazards present on their worksites. These steps greatly reduce the risk to employees and to rescue workers. If your organization does not have a detailed, up to date, executable response plan for on-site rescue from confined spaces, don’t wait! Get expert advice on creating your own lifesaving initiative today.