Note: As this paper goes to press, the proposed Permit-Required Confined Spaces Standard for Construction has not been finalized. In its proposed format, the Construction Standard is substantively similar to the General Industry Permit-Required Confines Spaces Standard. There is no indication at this time if or when the standard will become final. This paper addresses confined spaces in construction as it stands now under current OSHA regulations.
Confined space entry in construction operations is a problematic area in terms of both worker safety and compliance. Current OSHA requirements for construction activities are very limited. In addition, many employers often label activities as "construction" in a misguided attempt to get around what they perceive to be the onerous burden of complying with the General Industry Standard for Permit Required Confined Spaces (29 CFR 1910.146). Trying to avoid the general industry requirements creates a two-fold problem: workers are often inadequately protected during confined space entry operations, and the employer may not be in compliance with the OSHA requirements.
Both employers and employees are often lulled into a sense of security with their procedures because they have not experienced a serious incident during entry operations. The reality is that the lack of incident is more often related to luck rather than adequacy of confined space entry procedures. In order to have a truly safe and compliant program, the burden on the employer is great. The limited requirements of the construction standard for confined spaces belie the tremendous burden imposed on the employer for safe entry operations.
Safe entry operations depend on both an accurate assessment of whether the work is construction or maintenance, and development and implementation of a program that protects against the hazards or potential hazards faced during entry operations.
29 CFR 1926.21(b)(6) contains the requirements for confined space in construction. This section provides:
1926.21(b)(6)(i)-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.
1926(b)(6)(ii)- For purposes of paragraph (b)(6)(i) of this section, "confined or enclosed space" means any space having a limited means of egress, which is subject to the accumulation of toxic or flammable contaminants or has an oxygen deficient atmosphere. Confined or enclosed spaces include, but are not limited to, storage tanks, process vessels, bins, boilers, ventilation or exhaust ducts, sewers, underground utility vaults, tunnels, pipelines, and open top spaces more than 4 feet in depth such as pits, tubs, vaults, and vessels.
This section can be misleading as to the burden on employers to protect employees that are entering confined spaces. According to this section, confined spaces are only those limited access/egress areas that are subject to accumulation of toxic contaminants or have oxygen deficient atmospheres.