Confined Spaces in Construction

Make sure you understand OSHA regulations and are safe on the jobsite.

By Jerome E. Spear, CSP, CIH

Four construction workers were working in an inactive sewer system on a jobsite. A few minutes after they started working, the crew noticed the construction foreman was missing and a manhole cover had been removed over a newly constructed manhole.

One worker immediately called for emergency services, and a second worker entered the manhole and found the foreman at the bottom of the 20-foot manhole, but saw he was not responding.

Fire department personnel who arrived on scene brought the foreman up out of the manhole. He was later pronounced dead due to asphyxiation. Although the manhole was newly constructed and had not yet been connected to an active sewer system, it contained a hazardous atmosphere that resulted in asphyxiation.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates six fatalities and 812 injuries occur each year in confined spaces among employees involved in construction work—including the construction and repair of water wells.

OSHA issued a new standard for construction work in confined spaces, which became effective August 3, 2015. The provisions of the final rule for confined spaces in construction (29 CFR 1926, subpart AA) are similar to the confined space provisions for general industry work sites (29 CFR 1910.146, Permit-Required Confined Spaces) that have been in place since 1994.

There are some notable differences though. Knowing these key differences and understanding when general industry regulations apply and when construction regulations apply are necessary to be sure of compliance.

Maintenance or Construction?

Is the work maintenance or is it construction? This is the first question needing answered when determining whether OSHA’s general industry or construction standards apply.

If the work is considered “maintenance,” the contractor must comply with general industry standards. If the work is considered “construction,” OSHA’s construction standards apply.

Maintenance, repair, or refurbishing of existing equipment falls under the general industry confined space regulations. Examples of maintenance operations include cleaning, inspecting, repainting, and replacing components similar to an existing tank, vessel, or structure.

Construction operations consist of reconfiguring or installing substantially new equipment.

Construction vs. General Industry

There are five key differences between the general industry rule and the new construction rule, and several areas where OSHA has clarified existing requirements. The five new requirements for the construction rule include:

  • More detailed provisions requiring coordinated activities when there are multiple employers at the work site. The controlling contractor is in the best position to convey information to other employers at the work site. These provisions also try to prevent hazards being introduced into a confined space by workers performing tasks outside the space. An example would be a generator running near the entrance of a confined space that could cause a buildup of carbon monoxide within the space.
  • Requiring a competent person to evaluate the work site and identify confined spaces, including permit spaces. The requirement incorporates the term “competent person” with the same definition for this term as contained in other OSHA construction standards. A competent person means a person capable of identifying existing and predictable hazardous conditions, and who has the authority to address them promptly.
  • Requiring continuous atmospheric monitoring whenever possible.
  • Requiring early warning systems that continuously monitor engulfment hazards. For example, when workers are performing work in a storm sewer, a storm upstream could cause flash flooding. An electronic sensor or observer posted upstream from the work site can alert workers in the confined space at the first sign of the hazard, giving the workers time to evacuate the space safely.
  • Allowing for the suspension of a permit, instead of cancellation, in the event of changes from the entry conditions list on the permit or an unexpected event requiring evacuation of the space. The space must be returned to the entry conditions listed on the permit before re-entry.

In addition, OSHA includes provisions in the construction rule clarifying existing requirements in the general industry standard. These include:

  • Requiring employers who direct workers to enter a space without using a complete permit system prevent potential hazards in confined spaces through elimination of the hazards or isolation methods such as lockout/tagout procedures.
  • Requiring employers who are relying on local emergency services arrange for responders to give the employer advance notice if they are unable to respond for a period of time (because they are responding to another emergency, attending department-wide training).
  • Requiring employers to provide training using a language and vocabulary the workers understand.

Finally, several terms have been added to the definitions for the construction rule. For example, “entry employer” describes the employer who directs workers to enter a space, and “entry rescue” is another term added to clarify the differences in the types of rescue employers can use.

Communication and Coordination on Multi-Employer Work Sites

The OSHA confined space in construction rule makes the controlling contractor, rather than the host employer, the primary point of contact for information about permit spaces at the work site (see Figure 1).

The host employer must provide information it has about permit spaces at the work site to the controlling contractor, who then passes it on to the employers whose employees will enter the spaces (entry employers).

Likewise, entry employers must inform the controlling contractor of the existence, location, and danger posed by each permit space. The controlling contractor is required to subsequently pass that information on to other employers at the work site and to the host employer.

The controlling contractor is also responsible for making sure employers outside a space know not to create hazards in the space, and that entry employers working in a space at the same time do not create hazards for one another’s workers.

After entry operations, the entry employer must inform the controlling contractor in a timely manner of any hazards confronted or created in the permit space during entry operations, and the controlling contractor must debrief each entry employer on any hazards confronted or created in the permit space during entry operations. The controlling contractor must also apprise the host employer of the information exchanged with the entry employers.

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Previous Provisions

Prior to the promulgation of OSHA’s final rule for confined spaces in construction, OSHA had one provision in its construction standards for a general training requirement when employees worked in confined or enclosed spaces.

This provision in 29 CFR 1926.21(b)(6) required employers to train employees as to the nature of the hazards involved, the necessary precautions to be taken, and the use of protective emergency equipment required.

As a result of the promulgation of the current rule (subpart AA, Confined Spaces in Construction), the provision in 1926.21(b), or any guidance previously provided with respect to this provision, is no longer applicable or in effect.

OSHA’s construction regulations also contain requirements dealing with confined space hazards in excavations (subpart P), underground construction (subpart S), and underground electric transmission and distribution work (subpart V).

OSHA updated subpart V in 2014, which required compliance with the general industry standards for confined spaces in underground transmission and distribution work, pending the promulgation of the confined spaces in construction standard.

OSHA is amending subpart V to replace references to the general industry confined space standards with references to the construction rule. The confined space in construction standard (subpart AA) does not apply to underground construction (subpart S) and excavations (subpart P) as long as that work falls within the scope of the respective subpart.

There are 27 states and territories with their own OSHA-approved state plans covering private sector and state and local government employees. There are five other states (Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New York) and one territory (Virgin Islands) with plans covering specifically state and local government employees only. The state plans are required to have standards at least as effective as the federal rules.

Always verify the plans in your state before working with a confined space.

Jerome E. Spear, CSP, CIH, is president of J.E. Spear Consulting and has more than 22 years of experience helping organizations prevent injuries and illnesses, control losses, and achieve regulatory compliance. He held the positions of technical services manager with XL Specialty Risk Consulting and corporate industrial hygiene manager for Chicago Bridge and Iron Co., a worldwide steel fabricator and construction company.







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