The Safe-T-Cover Blog

This Is Why OSHA Confined Spaces Are So Dangerous

Posted by Craig Carmon on November 13, 2019

Safe-T-Cover’s mission is to get backflow preventers out of utility vaults because of the dangers these confined spaces present. There are a lot of precautions you must take before entering a vault, but not every company follows them. They often find out the hard way that OSHA confined space violations are serious business.

Take what happened recently in Austin, TX. OSHA is seeking more than $300,000 in penalties from a company for two willful and three serious violations after a worker died at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The worker suffered asphyxiation after entering a vault. OSHA’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor says the tragedy could have been avoided if the company followed the proper safety procedures including air testing, communication and use of devices for employee rescue. 

Let’s take a look at some of the precautions you must take before you send someone in a vault to test your backflow preventer. 

OSHA Confined Space Citations

OSHA’s investigation turned up some serious violations for the company in Texas. The specific violations include:

  • Not taking effective measures to prevent employees from entering permit-required spaces 
  • Not providing training to ensure employees understood the hazards of entering permit-required confined space
  • Failing to provide fall protection with a guardrail, safety net or personal fall arrest systems inside the below-ground vault
  • Violation of the hazard communication standard because the company failed to inform or train employees on the hazards of hydrogen sulfide in the below-ground vault.

The trapped gases that were inside the vault came from a commercial grease trap. As food waste decays, hydrogen sulfide is released. Similar situations occur inside vaults that are housing backflow preventers and even meters. Odorless, tasteless gases strike without warning. 

Low Oxygen Levels In Confined Spaces

It’s important to understand the clear signs of emergencies in confined spaces. Oxygen levels of 19.5% or less may cause problems like:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Clumsiness
  • Fatigue
  • Emotional upset 

As oxygen further decreases, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, collapse, seizures or convulsions, and coma can occur and eventually cause death. 

Other Confined Space Emergencies

In addition to the lack of oxygen, a vault may contain, there are other emergency situations that can develop. 

  • Vapors, Gases, and Fumes: In places where proper ventilation is lacking, fumes and poisonous gases can easily build up. Exposure to carbon dioxide, nitrogen, argon or other asphyxiants is very dangerous. 
  • Flooding: Liquids can flood confined spaces quickly and leave workers no time to escape.
  • Fire and Explosions: Liquids, flammable vapors, dust and gases can increase the risks of fire and explosions. 
  • Dust: Dust can also build up and can cause respiratory problems in confined spaces. 
  • Oxygen: Oxygen levels that are too high may lead to fire and explosions.
  • Temperature: Hot conditions may lead to increased body temperature and heat stroke.
  • Access Restrictions: When your employees are inside confined spaces, remember that there’s no easy way out. 

That’s not to mention any nesting animals, spiders or snakes you may come across. 

Confined Space Compliance

Compliance with the permit-required confined space entry standard requires the following:

  • Preventing employees from entering a confined space without a permit and training.
  • Testing the atmosphere before entry for oxygen content, flammability, toxicity or explosive hazards, and continuing atmospheric testing and monitoring during employee entry.
  • Identifying any hazards before entry.
  • Reviewing procedures before entry and ensuring employees understand how and when to exit a permit-required confined space.
  • Providing respiratory protection if ventilation cannot achieve adequate oxygen levels.
  • Using air-monitoring, communication, fall protection, lighting, rescue and ventilation equipment.
  • Maintaining contact between the employees and a trained attendant at all times either visually, via phone or with two-way radios.

Monitoring enables the attendant and entry supervisor to order employees to evacuate and alert trained response personnel if necessary. 

As you can see, utility vaults are dangerous. They’re considered confined spaces by OSHA and data collected by the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL), Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) program shows us that nearly 100 fatalities occur in confined spaces each year and workplace deaths involving confined spaces rose 15% to 166 in 2017 from 144 in 2016.

That’s part of the reason why more and more water purveyors are pulling their backflow preventers out of vaults and installing them above ground.

But all of this comes at a cost. The extra money you have to spend each time you send someone down into a vault is significant. There’s an easier way to get your backflow preventer tested. Installing your backflow preventer above ground in an enclosure is much safer and more cost-effective. Check out our guide to find out how municipalities and water purveyors are evolving their standards for backflow prevention and stop taking unnecessary risks. 

Get standard details & water system guidelines

Topics: vaults