OSHA Proposes Changes in Shipyard Standards to Cut Dangers

By Stephenie Overman Apr 16, 2008
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Because of the high rate of fatalities and injuries in shipyard employment, the U.S. government is proposing changing its standards on general shipyard working conditions.

The changes cover the control of hazardous energy and motor vehicle safety, work in confined or isolated spaces, lifeboats, housekeeping, lighting, utilities, sanitation, medical services and first aid, says the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in its proposed rule “General Working Conditions in Shipyard Employment,” which was published on the Federal Register late in 2007.

The proposed changes would update shipyard provisions that have largely gone unchanged since they were adopted in 1972, OSHA says in a written statement. The proposal would reflect advances in industry practices.

The most extensive provisions in the proposal address the control of exposure to hazardous energy, such as high-voltage equipment, through what is known as “lockout/tag out” (LOTO). OSHA defines LOTO as “practices and procedures to safeguard employees from the unexpected startup of machinery and equipment, or the release of hazardous energy during service or maintenance activities.”

Because a high proportion of shipyard employee fatalities and injuries are caused by motor vehicle-related accidents, OSHA proposes to add a section addressing those dangers. The hazards associated with operating complex or heavy equipment such as cranes and powered industrial trucks “are heightened because they are often performed outdoors in all kinds of weather, onboard vessels, in confined or enclosed spaces below deck, on scaffolds and on busy and crowded docks filled with equipment and material. Operation of vehicles and equipment is complicated by the fact that most shipyards are multi-employer worksites where shipyard employees, ships’ crew, contractors and subcontractors work side by side and often on the same ship’s systems at the same time, according to the proposed rule.

The rule would add to the requirements of accounting for employees who work in confined spaces or are alone in isolated areas. Shipyard standards already require that employers check frequently on employees who are working in confined spaces or alone in an isolated work location. The proposal would add a provision requiring employers to account—at the end of every work shift—for those employees who work in such locations.

In addition to OSHA’s current requirements that flammable substances such as paint thinners, solvents, rags and waste be stored in covered fire-resistant containers when not in use, there would be a requirement that combustible scrap be removed from the work area as soon as possible because “shipyards have many small fires that are often due to the accumulation of combustible scrap materials.”

Proposed changes in “housekeeping requirements” include a requirement that construction materials be stacked “in a manner that does not create a hazard (e.g., trip) to employees.”

The proposed rule retains many of the minimum requirements for lighting but calls for higher illumination levels in areas such as machine and carpentry shops, where employees might be using hazardous tools and equipment and performing precision work. Likewise, it calls for higher illumination levels in warehouses, stating that “it may be necessary for employees to read warning labels on flammable or hazardous substances and to safely operate lift trucks and other equipment.” In addition, it would simplify requirements concerning handheld portable lights.

The proposed rule retains existing requirements for working in or on lifeboats, and it would prohibit employees from being in a lifeboat at any time while it is being hoisted.

The proposed rule includes revisions to the existing provision on medical services and first aid and addresses first aid training and the locations of first aid providers and kits in shipyards.

Highly Hazardous Occupation

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries recorded 155 shipyard fatalities from 1992 to 2002. BLS data found that the industry’s injury and illness rates, although declining, were still more than three times the average private-sector rate.

In addition, a National Shipbuilding Research Program (NSRP) study that focused on seven shipyards over five years found that 10 hazardous energy-related injuries occurred annually at the participating shipyards. In almost every case, “the injury was the result of multiple failures in the system, such as failure to identify all hazardous energy sources and to properly verify de-energization of all sources,” the report said. The proposed rule’s “comprehensive lockout/tag out program and energy control procedures would be effective in preventing these types of injuries,” the report says.

“Working in shipyards is one of the most hazardous occupations in the nation,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Edwin Foulke in a statement. “Shipyard employees perform industrial operations such as abrasive blasting and welding, operate heavy equipment and often work in confined spaces onboard vessels. This proposed rule would help reduce the hazards these employees face.”

Workplace safety statistics show that shipyard fatalities’ rate is about twice that of other private industries, says Mark Garrett, health and safety specialist for the Kansas City, Mo.-based International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. The same standards on general shipyard working conditions have been in place for 36 years, he said. OSHA needs to revisit those standards and make some changes or clarifications, he said. “They’re now realizing that they’ve got to have some way to keep up with workers 24 hours a day because there are so many hazards,” he said.

Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer and editor based in Arlington, Va. She writes frequently about HR issues.

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