What you need to know about new confined space regulations

On the worksite, confined spaces pose distinct safety risks. Workers assigned to perform tasks in areas like manholes, vessels, pipelines and others must be given special training and be monitored closely while on the job. These spaces aren't necessarily dangerous by nature, but their tendency to constrict mobility and restrict access can be troublesome. For these reasons, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration established a new set of rules governing how organizations in an industrial or construction setting guarantee worker safety in confined spaces.

The changes became effective August 3, 2015, though there is a 60-day window for employers to demonstrate compliance. Read on to learn more about how these new guidelines will affect your organization.

How do the new OSHA standards help prevent confined spaces accidents?
How do the new OSHA standards help prevent accidents in confined spaces?

What are confined spaces?
We already mentioned manholes, vessels and pipelines. But "confined spaces" is a broad term that refers to any space large enough to be a workspace but not designed for continuous occupancy and with limited means of exit and entry. By that definition, confined spaces can also be tanks, silos, storage bins, hoppers, vaults, pits tunnels, equipment housings, ductwork, and many more.

To take it a step further, there are also "permit-required confined spaces," which pose additional risks beyond those of regular confined spaces. OSHA laid out these parameters specifically: "contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere; contains a material that has the potential to engulf an entrant; has walls that converge inward or floors that slope downward and taper into a smaller area which could trap or asphyxiate an entrant; or contains any other recognized safety or health hazard, such as unguarded machinery, exposed live wires, or heat stress."

Are workers allowed to operate in these areas?
The short answer is, yes. But especially with the OSHA regulations, there are certain parameters in place to guarantee those employees are safe. According to EHS Today, in 2014, two workers died repairing leaks in a manhole. The new rules, which focus on training and preparation, are designed to prevent cases like these from happening.

"In the construction industry, entering confined spaces is often necessary, but fatalities like these don't have to happen," said Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, according to EHS Today. "This new rule will significantly improve the safety of construction workers who enter confined spaces. In fact, we estimate that it will prevent about 780 serious injuries every year."

"The standards are about training, preparation and understanding the protocol."

As an employer, what do I have to do?
There are a number of responsibilities for employers to comply with the new standards, as outlined by Occupational Health & Safety Online. By and large, it's about training, preparation, understanding the protocol and working with the contractors and host employers involved. These standards apply to any organization in a construction or industrial setting.

However, there is a 60-day grace period in which OSHA will not issue fines for non-compliance, as long as the employer shows it's making an effort to put those standards into practice.

"Employers must be in compliance with either the training requirements of the new standard or the previous standard [during the 60-day window]," OSHA announced. "Employers who fail to train their employees consistent with either of these two standards will be cited."

That could include scheduling training as per the new standard, purchasing new equipment as per the new standard, or making increased efforts to educate and protect workers. To that end, proper signage could play a key role: By posting confined space signs and caution barricade tape where appropriate, employers will help prevent unnecessary accidents. It would also be a good idea for employers to educate themselves on the new standards in full.