Canadian Safety Experts Advocate for Treating All Excavations as Confined Spaces

Excavation workers can be exposed to numerous toxic gases, including carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide.  Courtesy: Canadian Occupational Safety

Excavation workers can be exposed to numerous toxic gases, including carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide.  Courtesy: Canadian Occupational Safety

Excavations present many of the same hazards as confined spaces – exposure to toxic gases, slips/trips/falls, falling equipment, contact with electrical lines, heat exhaustion, etc., as well as some unique hazards such as flooding and dust exposure. However, in some Canadian provinces, excavations sites are not treated as confined spaces.

Most Canadian federal and provincial legislation defines an area as a confined space if it:

  • is enclosed or partially enclosed;
  • is not designed primarily for continuous human occupancy;
  • has restricted means of access or exit; and
  • may become hazardous to a person entering it due to design, construction, location, atmosphere, the materials or substances in it or any other related hazards.

In the majority of provinces, excavations which do not meet all of the above criteria are not treated as confined spaces, even though those sites can still pose health and safety hazards. Safety experts around Canada are advocating for change in how safety legislation treats all excavations. Progress has been made in a few provinces, including British Columbia.

British Columbia did not treat excavations as confined spaces until April 2015, when new guidelines were introduced making excavation legally confined spaces unless they pass nine strict criteria, including the assurance of “clean respirable air at all times.” Said Karren Kossey, president of Nanaimo, B.C.-based ORCA Health and Safety, “Now, as soon as [excavations] have the ability to go toxic, they are confined spaces. As soon as you’re going in the space to generate contamination, they are confined spaces. It’s been a game changer for a lot of companies to start looking at some of these excavations and say, ‘What toxicity are you at?’ Many people just didn’t know the air quality in these excavations was as bad as the levels we’re finding.” Read more here.

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