OSHA harmonizes confined space rule for general industry, construction sites

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued a final rule, effective August 2015, to increase protections for construction workers in confined spaces, where life-threatening hazards include toxic substance exposure, electrocution, explosions, and asphyxiation. Manholes, crawl spaces, tanks, and other confined spaces are not intended for continuous occupancy, agency officials contend, adding that such structures are also difficult to exit in an emergency.


In 2014, OSHA investigated the deaths of two workers who were asphyxiated while repairing leaks in a manhole, the second when he went down to save the first—a response not uncommon in cases of asphyxiation in confined spaces. “In the construction industry, entering confined spaces is often necessary, but fatalities like these don’t have to happen,” says Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. “This new rule will significantly improve the safety of construction workers who enter confined spaces. We estimate it will prevent about 780 serious injuries every year.”

The rule will provide construction workers with protections similar to those manufacturing and general industry workers have had for more than two decades, with some differences tailored to the construction industry. These include requirements to ensure that multiple employers share vital safety information and to continuously monitor hazards—a safety option made possible by technological advances after the manufacturing and general industry standards were created.

“Unlike most general industry worksites, construction sites are continually evolving, with the number and characteristics of confined spaces changing as work progresses,” notes Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “This rule emphasizes training, continuous worksite evaluation and communication requirements to further protect workers’ safety and health.”

The revised rule for construction sites follows extensive OSHA observations of confined space incidents, along with a handful of case histories posted at osha.gov/confinedspaces.

New OSHA Hazard Communication Program changes are effective this month. Specific changes include the new 16-section format Safety Data Sheet (SDS, no longer MSDS or Material Safety Data Sheets) and new labels with pictograms. Employers will need to have the new SDS and label for all hazardous materials stored at concrete facilities. 

For more information on the updated standard, new elements, and required training, the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association has produced “NRMCA Hazard Communication Standards Guide,” available at www.nrmca.org.