Reducing Confined Space Fatalities in California

Image: Firefighters wearing ear protection

Oakland firefighters perform a confined space rescue drill at Cal/OSHA’s press release. The exercise was technically challenging and time –consuming, echoing UC Berkeley’s study findings.

Two brothers, Armando and Eladio Ramirez, 16 and 22 years of age, died in October 2011 in a concrete drain pipe underneath a composting facility in Lamont, California. Armando was cleaning the inside of the pipe when he was overcome by hydrogen sulfide vapors. Eladio died after attempting to save his brother, as occurs in 10% of confined space fatalities, where would-be rescuers become victims themselves.1

The death of the two young men “was the last straw for me,” said Ellen Widess, chief of the California Department of Industrial Relations’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), as she announced a new initiative aimed at reducing confined space fatalities in California. “We have the tools to prevent these needless tragedies.”

Confined spaces hazards are present in many industries. Sewer pipes, tunnels, crawl spaces, and underground vaults are examples where poor ventilation, minimal clearances, and reduced access for emergency rescue compound work hazards for employees. Last year, seven workers died as a result of confined space incidents across the state.

A mock rescue operation at the kick-off of Cal/OSHA’s Confined Space Emphasis Program, held in collaboration with the City of Oakland’s Fire Department, echoed the findings of a UC Berkeley study of 530 U.S. worker deaths in confined spaces from 1992-2005, published in February in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene. The study found that fire department crews can usually arrive on the scene of an emergency within five to seven minutes from the time of dispatch. But the time required to effect a confined space rescue, from extricating the victim to administering advanced life support, ranged from 48 to 173 minutes.

In the event of a life threatening emergency in a confined space, the study concluded that fire departments will usually not be able to complete a rescue in time to save the entrant. The study found, however, that less than 20% of 21 large companies surveyed maintained their own on-site rescue team for confined space work, and more than half reported they simply relied on the fire department for confined space rescue service.

“If employers are relying on fire departments to pull a worker out of a confined space, the outcome is very likely going to be a body recovery, not a rescue,” says lead author Michael Wilson, director of the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health.

“There are well-recognized hazards associated with entering confined spaces, but many employers seem to be unaware of them,” adds Wilson. “And when something goes wrong, they’re caught off-guard, without a plan aside from calling the fire department. Maybe they are unaware that a fire department rescue could take between one and three hours from the time a call is placed to 911. Employers are going to have to raise the bar on this. There is no excuse for another confined space fatality in California.” The results of Wilson’s study add weight to Cal/OSHA’s confined spaces initiative, which requires employers to have an on-site plan with employee training and proper safeguards in place, including an effective rescue plan.

Wilson believes nearly every one of the 530 U.S. fatalities his study evaluated was preventable. Calling the Cal/OSHA program on confined spaces an important first step, Wilson noted that it will take effective enforcement in conjunction with outreach to employers, workers, and unions, and the availability of safer chemicals for certain applications to prevent future fatalities.

Heather Madison conducted research for the study as a Berkeley graduate student in environmental health sciences. Stephen Healy is a Battalion Chief with the Moraga-Orinda Fire District and an expert in technical rescue operations.

UC Berkeley featured the confined space study findings and Cal/OSHA’s program on February 13, 2012: See http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2012/02/13/confined-spaces

California Department of Public Health, Occupational Health Branch, fatality and hazard alerts:

Worker Fatality Alert: Methylene chloride linked to worker death in tank: http://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/ohb-face/Documents/paintstripper.pdf

Methylene chloride is dangerous…there are safer alternatives!: http://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/hesis/Documents/MethyleneChlorideAlert.pdf

1 Wilson MP, Madison HN, Healy SB. Confined space emergency response: assessing employer and fire department practices. J Occup Environ Hyg. 2012 Feb;9(2):120-8.

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