Oregon OSHA Health and Safety


February 2015

Disguised danger

Construction company puts new confined space rule into practice

Hoffman's best practice is to ensure ventilation equipment will provide a minimum of six complete air changes per hour.

By Melanie Mesaros

Written in bold letters across Hoffman Construction’s confined space program is the statement‚ “Any mistake in confined space work could cost you your life or that of a co-worker.”

That reminder speaks to Hoffman’s strong emphasis on confined space safety – a program that began at the company in 1995. Tony Howard‚ corporate safety director‚ said the company recognized long ago the importance of protecting workers from potential dangers that may exist inside these spaces.

“Confined spaces come in all shapes and sizes‚” Howard said. “You could have one that you can barely get into or one that’s 10 stories tall. Either could be equally dangerous if proper protocol isn’t followed.”

Confined spaces‚ such as tanks‚ wells‚ or tunnels‚ have limited ability to exit and may contain potentially harmful material. Employers are required to take proper precautions when their employees must work in such spaces. Oregon OSHA’s new confined space standard for construction takes effect March 1‚ 2015‚ but Hoffman Construction has already implemented changes to be in compliance.

“The No. 1 way the new standard has helped us improve our program is through the required evaluation process‚” said Howard. “The law is very clear that employees must be prevented from entering any space until it is fully evaluated.”

Sam Dixson, a Hoffman safety manager, records data on the permit.
Sam Dixson, a Hoffman safety manager,
records data on the permit.

Over the past 10 years‚ seven workers in Oregon died in different confined space accidents. In one case‚ a mechanic was killed in an explosion inside a tanker truck. In 2007‚ a pipe layer was struck by a swinging concrete pipe while inside a 30-foot deep hole.

“The sad reality is that‚ most of the time‚ if something goes wrong in a permit-required confined space‚ people do not end up in the emergency room‚” said Dave McLaughlin‚ an Oregon OSHA industrial hygienist. “They end up in the morgue.”

Howard believes what makes confined space work so hazardous in construction is the dynamic of having multiple contractors working in a particular space. Each of them has the potential to add new and hidden dangers to the system as the work progresses toward completion.

“There are a lot of activities going on outside the space that could adversely affect the environment on the inside of the space as well‚” Hoffman said. “For example‚ an employee may be performing a task outside the space that seems pretty routine‚ like pressure washing a concrete floor‚ but the safety of the employees working inside the space could be greatly affected by this activity (water and/or carbon monoxide accumulation).”

Dangers present in the atmosphere offer no warning and can turn a confined space into a death trap‚ said McLaughlin. One common mistake is when people measure the oxygen content of a confined space. 

“The normal air we breathe has an oxygen content of about 20.9 percent‚” he said. “If you were to measure 19.9 percent inside a confined space‚ you’re not done. There is something displacing 1 percent of the oxygen‚ which translates to 10‚000 parts per million of another gas. Depending on the gas‚ that could be a lethal concentration.”

Hoffman uses a detailed checklist and flow chart to determine what type of space entry is required. The paperwork calls for the entry supervisor‚ entrants‚ and the attendant to assess the hazards ahead of time. Along with knowing the specific hazards within a space‚ workers must be trained in emergency rescue procedures.

Planning for the worst

According to Dave McLaughlin‚ an Oregon OSHA industrial hygienist‚ more than half of the people seriously injured or killed in a permit-required confined space are would-be rescuers who are not trained or prepared to conduct a rescue.

“We frequently see permits where the rescue plan is to call 911. What most folks don’t realize is that‚ with only a few exceptions‚ most community responders aren’t set up to perform confined space rescue‚” McLaughlin said. “You can still include a call to 911 as part of your response‚ but it is your responsibility to get the employee out of the space and on the ground where emergency responders can begin to render aid.”

For entering a permit-required space, here are some of the things you may typically find:

“To keep yourself out of trouble‚ you need to re-evaluate the space each and every day prior to the start of work and whenever conditions change‚” Howard said. “Even if you were just there the day before‚ conditions could have changed dramatically and the hazards are‚ many times‚ invisible.” End article

For more detail on Oregon OSHA’s changes to the confined space rule (437-002-0146)‚ see the next article A quick guide to Oregon OSHA's confined space rule.

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