Confined Spaces in Construction:

What the Construction Standard Means For YOU

By Tim Foulks  

In May 2015, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) issued a final rule for Confined Spaces in Construction (Read the full rule here: 29 CFR 1926, Subpart AA). 29 CFR 1926 Subpart AA is now the ruleset that establishes the requirements and regulations to protect construction workers entering into and working within confined spaces. This article is intended to outline the major changes added to the construction regulation and help you update your confined space programs to reach compliance.


If you’ve had experience working in confined spaces prior to this rule, the changes implemented and now enforced will not completely derail your confined space entry programs, however they’re worth reviewing and becoming acquainted with to ensure program compliance and worker protection. In fact, when considering of the some of the horrific events that have occurred within confined spaces recently, the updated requirements seem quite reasonable to ensure worker safety. 


Prior to the construction rule, confined space entry relied on the horizontal confined space entry standard, 29 CFR 1910.146. Typically, we refer to the 1910 regulation as the “general industry” standard, and the construction standard helps bridge the gap to account for the unique work areas that construction workers routinely enter into. For example, the general industry standard does not account for multi-employer worksites where a contractor outside the confined space may introduce a hazard to the entrants within the space. To account for this, the construction regulation adds a provision that requires the attendant outside the space to be aware of and assess activities occurring outside of the confined space to ensure hazards are not introduced from the outside inwards. This could be an outside contractor placing a generator or airborne contaminant near the supply side of the ventilation. To prevent the risks of this potential toxin, attendants now must be aware of hazards within the space as well as those occurring outside of the space.


All in all, the construction confined space rule only creates approximately six key differences between the GI rule and the construction rule.


Construction or General Industry? How do I know which rule to follow?


Before we break down the differences implemented by the new rule, let’s outline which standard you may be required to follow based upon your scope of work.


There are several letters of interpretation searchable on the OSHA webpage that may help you determine the standard that you will be held accountable to. The most recent of these letters indicates that “construction” is not limited to new facilities or buildings; however, it can include repairing existing structures or replacing existing components. If the work you’re performing is simply maintaining a piece of existing equipment or repairing a piece of equipment to its initial condition, it is considered maintenance and you’re more than likely going to be required to use the general industry standard. If you’re improving upon a piece of equipment or completely replacing equipment with new technology, your work scope will fall under the construction standard. If you’re unsure, place a call to your local area OSHA office and ask for assistance from a Compliance Assistance Specialist (CAS). These individuals will assist with general information, providing compliance assistance resources and answering specific questions to the best of their ability.


Construction. What do we need to know?


If you’re reading up to this point, you’ve more than likely decided that your work scope falls under “construction” and you’re interested in learning what your new requirements are. Let’s break them down one by one.




1.       Competent Person Provision


In alignment with many other construction regulations (such as fall protection, scaffolding, trenching and excavations, etc.) the confined space standard now includes a competent person provision. The competent person is defined by OSHA as “one who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and who has the authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.” So, the competent person must (1) through a combination of training and experience understand the hazards to be faced and (2) have the authority to communicate the hazard and work with haste to correct the hazard.


In regards to Subpart AA, prior to work commencing the competent person must identify all confined spaces for which his/her employees will be working in and identifying each space that is a permit space through evaluation and testing. We recommend that for each permit space existing onsite, the competent person mark appropriately with signage that says “Danger, Confined Space. Enter by Permit Only,” or similar verbiage. Additionally, the competent person is the individual responsible for re-evaluating confined spaces when conditions change and reclassifying the spaces to or from a permit space to a non-permit space.


2.       Continuous Atmospheric Monitoring


For permit spaces, OSHA now requires that the atmosphere be “continuously monitored” unless a justification can be established that equipment for continuous monitoring is unavailable. Additionally, the equipment provided must have an audible alarm that alerts the entrants if and when the atmosphere is not safe for entry to continue, or, the employer must demonstrate that the employee will check the monitor with sufficient frequency.


Essentially, if the employer has a team entering a permit space, the employer will be required to obtain and provide air monitors for continuous monitoring. Fortunately, these pieces of equipment are readily available and are not significantly expensive, however, you may need to obtain additional direct read-out air monitors to ensure an ample number of monitors are available when multiple confined space entries occur simultaneously.


3.       Continuous Engulfment Monitoring


For spaces wherein isolating certain components of the system (such as continuous systems) is infeasible, continuous monitoring for engulfment hazards must occur. Engulfment, which is asphyxiation or suffocation by a liquid or flowable solid, can occur in grain silos, sewer systems, holding tanks, etc. If isolating and securing the entry points for these liquids or solids is not possible or feasible, an “early-warning system” (either, alarms activated by sensors or a lookout with radio equipment for communication) must be present. The system must also provide sufficient enough warning to allow entrants to exit the space without harm.


4.       Coordination for Multi-Employer Worksites


As eluded to in the introduction of this article, OSHA is now requiring coordination between multiple contractors on the same worksite. This is not only applicable to coordination of multiple contractors entering the same confined space; however, this extends to contractors that may be outside of the space with the potential to introduce hazards into the confined space.


To satisfy this requirement, it’s recommended to request a detailed scope of work for each contractor onsite from the host employer, or, controlling contractor. By understanding different contractors’ work functions in each area of the worksite, pre-planning can improve and communication can occur between the contractors to mitigate or prevent hazards from causing issues inside the confined space. It is beneficial to communicate the access/egress points of the space, the ventilation intake points, and even to barricade off areas wherein hazards could inadvertently by introduced into the confined space.


5.       Permits. Allowing for Suspension Instead of Cancellation.


When we relied on the general industry standard for confined space entry, permits were required to be cancelled and completely reissued when any event occurred that was not allowed by the permit during that period of entry. To make life easier on construction entities, permits can now be suspended when conditions arise that are not accounted for by the entry permit. Suspending the permit allows the entry employer to remove all personnel from the space, reassess the space, correct the issue, and reissue the same permit instead of completing an entirely new permit.


It is always recommended to revisit controls established by the permit to ensure that adverse events will not be a recurrence. For example, if ventilation in use at the time of entry is proving to not be sufficient in providing an adequate oxygen supply during welding or other hot work, changes to the ventilation system may be required to ensure an atmosphere safe for entry.


6.       Emergency Services Coordination


Finally, if you rely on an off-site rescue team, such as the fire department, to perform rescue for your company, the new regulation requires that you have coordination with them if they would be unavailable for any period of time. For example, if the rescue team would be unavailable because they are assisting with another emergency or participating in a staff retreat, procedures must be established to alert you of their inability to assist during that time period.


We always recommend that you have a method (or several methods) in place to ensure you can remove your team from a confined space if the worst was to happen. The last thing you want is to have your attendant or entry supervisor know that there’s an emergency occurring inside the confined space with no way of assisting.


To Recap:


The changes to the confined space standard are not so significant wherein you need to completely start over from square one. However, the six major changes between the previously utilized standard and the new construction standard are necessary to keep our folks safe during confined space entry. Take a moment to review the six key changes outlined in this article and ensure that your program is meeting the updated requirements.


Through education, communication, and coordination we can continue to focus on methods to mitigate injuries and minimize worker fatalities in these unique work areas.