Just before dawn on Dec. 5, a fellow worker found Dennis Claypool and Mark DeMoss lying dead on their backs in a large tanker-trailer they had been directed to clean at a trucking company 60 miles south of Chicago.
The two young men had died in the same way as about 3,000 other workers in the last decade: by breathing unsafe air in enclosed work spaces. In this case, federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials have concluded that DeMoss, 18, and Claypool, 21, died because all the oxygen had been sucked out of the tanker during a chemical operation two days earlier.
Claypool's father, Philip, a Morris, Ill., carpenter, and occupational safety experts said the deaths of his son and DeMoss are symbolic of a striking failure by regulators.
Every year, about 300 workers die in such incidents nationwide, and all of them die needlessly, according to John Moran, former director of safety research for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Unlike many health and safety issues affecting the workplace, there is little disagreement over the need for federal standards to regulate work in what are referred to as "confined spaces." Some employer groups, as well as numerous unions, have been among those urging the government to adopt such standards.
In fact, OSHA itself first acknowledged in 1975 the need to set safety standards for workers entering and working in confined spaces.
That was 14 years ago, but standards still have not been issued. In the meantime, according to Moran's figures, more than 4,000 people have been asphyxiated, poisoned or died in explosions in boilers, sewers, refinery tanks, silos, airplane wings and other confined spaces. Many of those died trying to rescue their co-workers.
"This is a clear example of the failure of OSHA to act in an area where people are getting killed," said Margaret Seminario, associate director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO. "It's such a clear hazard and there's no question that it's feasible to do something."
Outline Exists for 10 Years
The formal outline of how federal OSHA could regulate "confined space" entries has existed since 1979, when NIOSH presented OSHA with a 68-page document describing the criteria for a standard. Since then, OSHA personnel have written several drafts but never took any action.
Only a few days before Claypool and DeMoss died, OSHA finally finished its confined-space proposal and sent it to the Office of Management and Budget. The budget agency must approve the proposal before OSHA can formally present it for public hearings.
A knowledgeable source in federal OSHA said the standard differs "very little" from the last major draft, completed in June, 1985. The source said that for the last three years Labor Department lawyers have been tinkering with the proposal and writing a lengthy preamble to the standard.
Tom Seymour, OSHA's deputy for safety standards programs, acknowledged that confined-space deaths are a "serious problem" and that federal regulations are "long overdue."
It should not have taken so long to get a standard written, Seymour said in a telephone interview. "Part of the problem (for the delay) has been priorities," he said, indicating that the agency considered other issues more pressing.
But union representatives and other safety and health officials asserted that much of the delay was due to the stated philosophical opposition of the Reagan Administration to adopting more regulations. "This reflects the Reagan Administration's knee-jerk, anti-regulation outlook which has obstructed all OSHA rule-making," said Frank Mirer, the United Auto Workers' health and safety director.
Confined-space deaths are hardly a matter of concern only to union officials and safety engineers. At least some elements of corporate America say they have urged OSHA to act.
"People are dying every year; industries recognize that," said Jo Anne Linhardt, a safety expert for Organization Resources Counselors Inc., a Washington-based consulting firm that gives professional assistance to numerous Fortune 500 companies.
She said her organization had sent suggestions to federal OSHA on what should be in a confined space standard, as have several unions and professional safety groups, including the Water Pollution Control Federation.
A "confined space" is described by occupational safety experts as a space with any of the following characteristics:
- Small openings for entry and exit.
- Unfavorable natural ventilation.
- An area not designed for continuous worker occupancy.