New initiative launched to increase awareness of workspace safety

Following a study conducted by a UC Berkeley researcher on improving the safety conditions of employees who work in confined spaces, a California public safety division launched a new public initiative last week which will aim to increase public awareness of the issue.

The study — which was headed by Director of the UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program Michael Wilson — originally appeared in the September issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene and discussed the need for more effective safety procedures for workers who face the dangers of confined spaces.

The California Department of Industrial Relations’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health subsequently launched a public initiative to increase workers’ safety, following an increase in confined space-related deaths in California in 2011. Two deaths per year occurred from 2008 to 2010, while seven deaths occurred in 2011.

According to a report released in January by the department, a confined space refers to an area that is large enough for an employee to enter, yet is significantly limited in its entry and exit points. Confined space emergencies could happen in a number of industries, including manufacturing, construction and any space that might give way to toxic gases.

After compiling data from 21 Silicon Valley companies, Wilson and his co-authors Heather Madison and Steven Healy discovered that 57 percent of the companies surveyed did not have a confined space safety plan in place other than to call the fire department. As a result, the companies resort to calling 911 in the case of any confined space emergency.

“The employers need to take responsibility for having a way to rescue their employees in the event of a confined space emergency before the firefighters arrive,” Wilson said.

While the initial response time of firefighters is five to seven minutes, it can sometimes take one to three hours for firefighters to properly assess the situation and set forth a course of action, according to Wilson.

And in situations where toxic gases are present or where an employee is trapped, every second is precious. It is vital that companies have people on site and ready to act if an emergency presents itself, according to the study.

“For firefighters it is low frequency and high-risk rescue call,” Wilson said. “The firefighters must be careful to not become victims themselves.”

The division’s program would align with the study by spreading awareness of requirements that mandate employers to have an emergency plan other than calling 911. It is the employer’s responsibility to train employees so that they help fellow workers in unsafe confined spaces, according to Department of Industrial Relations spokesperson Erika Monterroza.

The safety division is not advocating for a change in legislation, choosing to emphasize the requirements that are already in place for workplace safety, she said.

“Confined spaces are especially dangerous because they are not encountered regularly,” Monterroza said. “There needs to be training for employers to deal with these situations.”