By: Aaron Wissen, CHST

March 2015

OSHA indicated there will be some significant regulatory changes coming in 2015.  One in particular, OSHA’s regulations for protecting construction workers who enter confined spaces, is poised to be significant.  In 1993, OSHA issued the general industry regulations for protecting workers who enter confined spaces, (29 CFR 1910.146), and for 22 years now, the construction industry has referenced those general industry regulations.

Because construction activities can present many unique characteristics and situations, this may have been problematic for many construction companies.  So how do construction companies protect their workers or adequately address the hazards associated with confined spaces?  Define the space.  Train the workers.  Provide the necessary equipment.  Plan for an emergency.

It is important to understand the specific activities that the workers will be involved in and the differences between general and construction industry activities.  OSHA uses the term “general industry” to refer to all industries not included in agriculture, construction, or maritime.  An example could be a worker performing maintenance on a piece of equipment already installed/operating.   

OSHA goes on to define “construction work” as the construction, alteration, and/or repair activities, including painting and decorating.  For example, a worker performing maintenance on a piece of equipment realizes the equipment is beyond repair and must be replaced with a newer/different model.  The activities involved with the changes would then be covered under the construction industry regulations.

These types of examples can be applied to any situation when deciding which set of regulations to follow.  But as mentioned above, the workers’ activities ultimately determine which industry regulations to follow.  With continuous updates and revisions to OSHA regulations, it is essential to recognize which standards will apply to each work activity.

Confined spaces have presented employers extraordinary challenges over the years.  According to OSHA, about 90 deaths involving confined spaces occur every year.  Many of these occur because workers and employers are failing to recognize the area as a confined space or are making assumptions about the space and going in without the appropriate protective measures.  

An additional challenge, an employer, may face, is increasing workers’ awareness that the most significant dangers within a confined space are often unseen.  Oxygen deficiencies and oxygen displacement are life threatening dangers that can exist prior to or even occur during entry if proper precautions are not taken.  Identifying these spaces and training individuals on roles, responsibilities and requirements are the backbone to defining these spaces.

Generally, confined space is defined as:

  • Any space with limited means of access and egress,
  • Is large enough that a person can enter, and
  • Is not designed for continuous human occupancy.  

Some very common types of confined spaces are tanks, tunnels, manholes, and vaults.  However, many less obvious spaces, like excavation, could be considered a confined space depending on the conditions and work activities involved.  It is imperative that employers take the time to define the confined spaces they anticipate workers will encounter or work in. 

Currently, OSHA identifies two types of confined spaces: permit-required and non-permit required.  A permit-required confined space will contain one or more of the following:

  • A hazardous atmosphere or the potential for one,
  • Material that could potential engulf an individual,
  • A configuration that could trap or asphyxiate an individual,
  • Any other recognized serious safety or health hazard

Employers are required to alert workers of the dangers and location of permit-required confined spaces and have a defined emergency response procedure determined.

A non-permit required confined space is a space that with respect to atmospheric hazards, does not contain or have the potential to contain any hazard capable of causing serious injury or death.

Workers must then be proficiently trained on entry and exit procedures, potential hazards encountered, protective equipment required and any emergency response procedures.  Many confined spaces have unique hazards on top of the regular hazards associated with the space.  Ergonomics or stuck-by’s are examples of some non-permit required confined space hazards.  Other potential hazards may be falls, the decomposition of materials, noise, heat, lighting or lockout/tagout.               

Lastly, having a detailed emergency rescue plan in place could ultimately make the difference in an unforeseen circumstance.  It is estimated that 40% of confined space fatalities involved attempted rescuers.  Confined space attendants must recognize that entering the space untrained could have exponentially devastating consequences.   Rescue scenarios could be avoided if appropriate procedures are implemented on a routine basis. 

Confined spaces have often been recognized for their diverse configurations and solutions, but don’t let these spaces turn into a permanent confined space for anyone.  No matter what the work, the job is to make sure it gets done safely.