By: Thomas H. Welby Published: June 2012

Safety Policy: Confined Space Construction Standard May Soon Become Final Rule

As you probably know, OSHA has separate standards for general industry and construction. The general construction standards are Part 1910 of Volume 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations, and the construction standards are Part 1926.

Just because your company does what you regard as "construction work," that doesn't mean that the general industry standards never govern work that you do. Construction and modernization work generally fall under Part 1926, but maintenance and repair activities are governed by the general industry standards of Part 1910. It's the nature of the activity being performed, not the primary line of work or other attributes of the employer, that governs.

For years, OSHA's general industry standards have included rules for work in "confined spaces." Such spaces are defined as:

  • Large enough, and arranged in such a manner, that employees can enter;
  • Having limited or restricted means of ingress or egress; and
  • Not designed for continuous employee occupancy.

A primary feature of the general industry rules is the "permit-required" confined space. This refers not to a permit granted by a government agency, but procedures whereby the employer restricts who may enter certain hazardous confined spaces, and with what precautions.

OSHA's general industry standard defines a "permit-required confined space" as one with at least one of the following characteristics:

  • A hazardous atmosphere, or the potential to contain one;
  • Material having the potential to engulf entrants;
  • An internal configuration that could cause an entrant to be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls, or a floor that slopes downward and tapers to a smaller cross-section; or
  • Other recognized, serious safety or health hazards.

Further features of the general industry standard include warnings to employees; the identification and control of hazards existing in permit-required confined spaces, and the necessity for a comprehensive, written confined space entry program. Since primary confined space hazards include too little oxygen, or the accumulation of toxic or flammable contaminants, atmospheric monitoring, isolation and ventilation may also be required.

The general industry standard requires employees entering or supervising entry operations to be designated, trained and qualified, and that contractors be informed of hazards posed by entry. Required, also, is an emergency response plan.

Although applicable to maintenance and repair work, historically the general industry standards have not applied to construction work. Construction standards for trenching, excavation and tunneling operations, although having similarities with the general industry confined space standards, are governed by § 1926.651 (trenching and excavations) and § 1926.800 (tunneling)."

At present, the primary construction standard that applies to confined spaces is § 1926.21, which requires in part that:

All employees required to enter into confined or enclosed spaces shall be instructed as to the nature of the hazards involved, the necessary precautions to be taken, and in the use of protective and emergency equipment required. The employer shall comply with any specific regulations that apply to work in dangerous or potentially dangerous areas.

The current construction standard defines "confined or enclosed spaces" to include, without limitation, "storage tanks, process vessels, bins, boilers, ventilation or exhaust ducts, sewers, underground utility vaults, tunnels, pipelines, and open top spaces more than 4' in depth such as pits, tubs, vaults, and vessels."

There exist additional, secondary construction standards that address confined space hazards in underground construction (Subpart S), underground electric transmission and distribution work (§ 1926.956), excavations (Subpart S) and welding and cutting (Subpart J). In the absence of a comprehensive OSHA construction standard, the CO's accept compliance and training consistent with ANSI National Standard ANSI Z117.1-1989, "Safety Requirements for Confined Spaces" as satisfactory.

Things are expected, however, to change in the near future. After a glacial rulemaking process dating back to 1984, OSHA is expected within the next months to promulgate, as a final rule, a proposed new construction standard. The good news is that (in its "not quite final" form) on the merits, the new rule has much to commend it. The bad news is that it varies significantly from, and is more complex than, the ANSI standard which has been pretty much the de facto construction standard for decades. The proposed rule and explanatory material in the Federal Register ran to 49 pages (80 single-spaced pages, when printed out from the "Federal Register Online").

OSHA's rationale for having a distinct construction standard is based, among other considerations, on the evolving character of construction sites (with confined spaces changing, as the work progresses) and the characteristics of the construction workforce, with high turnover, employees performing short-term tasks, and working at multiple worksites.

While obviously I can't fully describe the new standard fully (and significant last-minute changes could occur) some key differences between the new construction standard, in its current form, and the general industry standard are worth mentioning.

First, the construction standard is organized essentially in a chronological order, taking a step-by-step approach to assessing hazards, classifying the space, and how to safely enter it.

The new standard will require confined spaces to be classified as one of the following:

  • Continuous System Permit Required Confined Space (CS-PCRS);
  • Permit Required Confined Space (PCRS);
  • Controlled Atmosphere Confined Space (CACS); or
  • Isolated Hazard Confined Space (IHCS).

The PCRS is much the same as under the existing general industry standard. The CS-PCRS is one that is a part of, and contiguous with, larger confined space (such as a sewer) so as to require special precautions.

A "Controlled Atmosphere Confined Space" is one where ventilation alone should suffice to maintain atmospheric hazards at safe levels. The "Isolated Hazard Confined Space" is one in which all physical and atmospheric hazards have been "isolated," which is to say eliminated or removed - such as by misaligning or removing sections of lines, pipes or ducts, installing guard rails, stairs or platforms to eliminate fall hazards, etc.

The proposed construction standard requires the "controlling contractor" to coordinate entry operations among contractors who have employees entering a confined space, even if the controlling contractor does not itself have employees who will enter it. Whereas the general industry standard provides for atmospheric monitoring "as necessary," the new standard is more stringent, in that it requires continuous monitoring, unless it is affirmatively determined that periodic monitoring will suffice.

Employers will also be required to provide, calibrate and maintain PPE, as well as portable gas monitoring instruments, continuous air monitoring instruments for use during entry, air purifying respirators, self-contained breathing apparatus and supplied air systems, and entry and retrieval equipment for use by rescue teams in an emergency.

The new standard is more demanding, also, in that requirements for prompt rescue will require training and equipping on-site rescue teams, at locations where reliance on outside rescue professionals has hitherto been the norm.

This is a subject we'll return to in future articles, but it definitely needs to be "on your radar," even though its effective date has not yet been announced.

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