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Confined Space Rule for Construction Is Near Completion, OSHA Official Reports

Thursday, June 14, 2012

DENVER--The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's final rule on confined spaces in construction is now being cleared internally and is “really close” to being issued, an OSHA official said June 4 at the American Society of Safety Engineers' annual convention.

Due to election-year politics, however, “it's hard to tell what will actually get published by the end of the year,” Jim Maddux, director of OSHA's directorate of construction, said. “At least on the staff level, we've got almost all the work done on this one.”

The confined space standard has been in development since 2003. Public hearings were held in 2008. An OSHA official said in 2008 the rule would reduce confined space fatalities by 90 percent (38 OSHR 665, 8/21/08; 38 OSHR 154, 2/21/08).

OSHA's most recent regulatory agenda lists a June 2012 target date for the final rule (42 OSHR 69, 1/26/12).

Crane Directive Being Readied

OSHA is also continuing work on a cranes and derricks directive to accompany its August 2010 regulation, with the goal of issuing a final document within “about the next month” for internal comment, Maddux said (42 OSHR 493, 5/31/12).

“This is really, really needed,” he said. “We need to get the directive done so we can really complete our training programs for our compliance officers, so we can get out and start enforcing the crane standard more seriously and with more consistency.”

OSHA is currently enforcing the crane standard, but Maddux said there are “a number of soft spots that we're keeping away from.” He did not elaborate.

OSHA is also readying a directive on highway work zones for its enforcement staff, aimed at creating more consistency in how citations are issued, Maddux said.

The directive will apply not only to roadbed work, but also to any situations in which workers are on a roadway surface, such as utility work or trenching operations, in which crews are using a roadway as a work platform, according to Maddux.

OSHA Preparing for Uptick in Construction

Maddux also said OSHA officials are concerned about a stubbornly persistent fatality rate in the construction sector that has been masked by a drop in actual deaths.

The number of construction deaths fell from 1,204 in 2007 to 774 in 2010, almost entirely “because the construction industry tanked,” he said. However, the death rate has remained virtually unchanged, from 9.7 per 100,000 workers in 2007 to 9.9 the following year and 9.8 in 2009.

“We're not making progress,” Maddux said. “The numbers are deceptive. So the question is, what are we going to do when the economy returns and construction picks up--which, in some parts of the country, it is already starting to do right now? Are we going to return to 1,200 fatalities a year?”

According to the U.S. Census, seasonally adjusted construction activity rose by 6.8 percent in the U.S. from April 2011 to April 2012.

Enforcement Drives All Activities

Commenting on the most frequently cited OSHA violations, Maddux said it was “distressing” that so many of the top citation categories concern personal protective equipment, such as fall protection, head protection, and eye and face protection.

“Despite all of our efforts, we still don't have people in basic hard hats, safety shoes, safety glasses,” Maddux said. “We're still not getting through to enough of the construction industry on these basic issues.”

Maddux also said OSHA enforcement is the prime force that drives the agency's other activities, such as outreach and voluntary programs.

“If you don't have a strong enforcement program, people really don't care about the rest of it,” Maddux said. “It is our enforcement program that draws a lot of the attention to things like the consultation program, to the voluntary protection program.”

Many companies currently enrolled in VPP were once the subject of large enforcement cases, Maddux said.

By Stephen Lee