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Confined Spaces in Construction

Published: 22nd Jul 2013

Recently there has been a lot of buzz regarding a new OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standard for confined spaces in construction. The proposed new standard, with an emphasis on monitoring, has the ability to further protect workers from hazards and save lives.

Over the last couple of years, OSHA has talked, written and asked for comments on the proposed confined space standard for construction. The standard, written three years ago, was quite different to the current 1910 standard and required many different techniques than previously used or identified.

Interestingly, it did have some rescue requirements that might have proved challenging but also would have been beneficial to most. I have had the privilege to review what is perceived as the 95% final version of the standard and I am happy to report that it appears to be very similar to the 1910 standard. There are changes, there are differences and there are similarities, but the idea of upstream monitoring appears to still be in place.

The proposed standard is very similar to the existing 1910.146 standard of General Industry. The proposed standard will make life simpler and will benefit employers and employees alike, regardless of where you work – it is substantially better than what we currently have in 1926.

So what does it look like? Remember, this is subject to some last minute changes, so here you go.

It’s all in the detail

The proposed new standard first adds in the common Competent Person requirement as seen in many other construction standards and also picks up the all too common Controlling Contractor and Host Contractor.

The Competent Person must identify all confined spaces and those that are Permit Required. These are just two of the new requirements that are not in the existing General Industry (GI) standard.

The definition of a confined space stays the same as in GI. Many of the other definitions are the same as in GI but have some additional details or explanations. The new standard also requires a written permit space programme that must be available at the construction site for all to see.

One caveat is at the end of the proposed standard and states that “for each document required to be retained in this standard, the retaining employer must make the document available, on request, to OSHA or their designee.” This is very similar to the OSHA 300 logs that are required, upon being asked for copies of such, to be given within an eight hour window. A clear emphasis on producing all evidentiary documents to OSHA is given and most assuredly will be enforced.

The new standard proposes an Early Warning System as a means to “alert entrants and attendants that an engulfment hazard may be developing.” Having not looked at the preamble, I have to assume that this applies to a liquid, solid or a gas as all can be engulfment hazards of sorts.

Practical applications

This Early Warning System can be accomplished with remote monitoring or sensors, or even people observing for hazards upstream from the entry area. Interestingly enough the idea of remote monitoring is not found in the GI standard.

It will take some time to determine just how far upstream one must go to properly measure and give a timely alert to a worker downstream, or even ascertain what has to be monitored. So the question is this: How does one remotely monitor the confined space for hazards away from the entry area?

This may be accomplished by a second air monitor placed upstream that would alarm and alert another worker of the approaching bad atmosphere. If the hazard is liquid it would require some sort of flow monitor to identify a change and alert a worker downstream of the approaching hazard.

An option for the atmospheric change is to use the new remote monitoring options which, being wireless, will broadcast gas levels to a secondary unit or other work area. Wireless monitoring features enable workers to remotely monitor a confined space and respond quickly to alarms and emergency situations in other locations.

For flow monitoring you are probably looking at an electronic flow and rate monitor lowered into the confined space upstream of the work area. There are already such items on the market today that would do just that. Whether or not those systems are portable or even battery or electric powered are other questions. The apparent drawback is that someone must be monitoring the units and alerting the entrant downstream. This is a challenging and difficult requirement as it not only requires some additional equipment but most likely even an additional worker.

Assessing the hazards

As for entry, the standard requires continuous monitoring to be feasible unless infeasible, and then it must be periodic at minimum. When is infeasible? How often is periodic? One might argue that with current technology and equipment continuous monitoring is feasible all the time, but if not, periodic must be determined as to how often.

If hazards are identified while employees are inside of the spaces, they must leave immediately. This appears to be identical to that of GI and requires Oxygen, Flammables and Toxics to be assessed in that order of priority.

Standard air monitors on the market look at four common items: Oxygen, LEL (flammables), Carbon Monoxide and Hydrogen Sulfide. Most four gas monitors can be customised to allow you to adapt to your unique situation.

Some common problems with monitoring are the monitor’s response times, calibration requirements and stratified atmospheres. Problems arise when untrained workers are guesstimating what the hazards are inside a confined space. A thorough analysis of the hazards will help with determining proper work measures.

Response times can vary from seconds to minutes in sampling and can change dramatically when using sampling tubes and pumps. A rule for one manufacturer is ‘two and two’; that is, two minutes to start and then two seconds for every foot of sampling hose used. Others may only be a few seconds to draw enough air across a sensor for a reading when no pump and hose are used.

Normal atmospheres are 20.9 for Oxygen and 0 for the others. OSHA allows a minimum of 19.5 for Oxygen, so the question is what took the place of 1.4% of the Oxygen? In reality, a 1.4% change can be significant in exposure as something else has taken its place. To be specific a 1% change is equivalent to a 10,000 PPM (Parts Per Million) difference.

What was that something else? Flammable? Carbon Monoxide? Nitrogen? Calibration can be an issue due to the cal gas itself, and how it can affect the LEL readings. Depending on the gas used, such as Propane, Hexane or Pentane, it can have drastic effects on your LEL levels.

Lastly, fresh air calibration must be performed in a known fresh air environment. Fresh airing in abnormal atmospheres can ‘zero’ your monitor to the hazard, thus giving a false reading.

Safe systems of work

Monitoring atmospheres can be challenging, difficult and downright risky if employees are not trained the proper way. It is imperative that those employees working in or around hazardous atmospheres understand the hazards and how to properly assess their work atmospheres.

The employer must also ensure a safe method of entering and exiting confined spaces. Systems must be from a manufacturer designing their equipment for personnel hoisting, or must be designed by a registered Professional Engineer.

Prior to entering, someone is required to provide “written certification containing the date, location of the space, and the signature of the person providing the certification.” This is identical to GI and is commonly completed via a permit. Entering under the Permit Required status and eliminating all hazards, thus reclassifying as Non Permit Required, is also allowed, just as it is in GI.

The steps to reclassify are the same as in GI including the written certification that the hazards have been eliminated and the space is able to be reclassified. This Reclassified Certification is in addition to the entry permit.

Entry by multiple companies must be coordinated by the Host, or Controlling Employer, and they must debrief each employer on the hazards and operations confronted. The Host Employer is required to share their information regarding the confined spaces they have.

The Permit Required space that is part of a contiguous system such as a sewer requires pre-entry testing, continuous monitoring, and the Early Warning System for non-isolated engulfment hazards, allowing sufficient time for the entrant to self-rescue.

The employers’ responsibilities are very similar to those of GI. One area that I see as a positive change is that of requiring the employer to designate procedures for notifying rescue services. One can only assume that this requirement includes notifying rescue of the hazards, location, work times, and equipment available for them to properly prepare for a rescue.

The real question becomes ‘What if the rescue team you picked refuses to be your plan’? The standard mandates implementing procedures for coordinating with other employers. Communication equipment is required for attendants who are monitoring multiple entries which would also require intrinsically safe radios if the atmospheres are explosive.

Hazards that have been identified by the employer must be communicated to the employees along with the measures and procedures to protect those in the confined space. Signage identifying the spaces as Permit Required confined spaces is identical to that of GI, and can be used for identification of such spaces.

The standard looks at those hazards outside of the space such as weather, traffic or pedestrians. Ironically, there is a requirement that says “if there is an OSHA standard that addresses other confined space hazards, the employer must comply with both standards.” This could apply to fall protection, respiratory protection, welding and cutting along with a host of others. This alone could be challenging to employers, as the argument will be made that ‘I am in construction and not GI’, or ‘That does not apply to me’. Beware, as the requirement appears to have been placed.

Noteworthy requirements

In the programme requirements, “a means of detecting an increase in atmospheric hazard levels in the event the ventilation system stops working” is different, and not in the GI standard. This could require a secondary monitor or other system along with the original Permit Required confined space entry monitoring.

This also may be interpreted as requiring some sort of alarm that will signal if the power stops, the blower turns off or even monitoring the air being pushed into the space. We will have to wait and see how it is defined in the preamble, but note that it is different to that of GI.

Training of employees is also slightly different. Although the training requirements and the certification are verbatim, the certification must also be kept on site for the duration of the employee’s job status or the permit itself – whichever is longer.

The Rescue requirements are very similar to that of GI. One notable section in the proposed standard under Rescue is further detailed as saying “equipment that is unsuitable for retrieval must not be used, including, but not limited to, retrieval lines that have a reasonable probability of becoming entangled with retrieval lines used by other authorized entrants, or retrieval lines that will not work due to the internal configuration of the PRCS (permit required confined space).”

Obviously if something is defective it is to be removed from service, but this could give employers an out to providing retrieval systems where multiple people have entered. It also may require a system to prevent entanglement. How can an employer connect a retrieval system to two or more people in a confined space without them becoming an entanglement hazard? I, for one, do not like this statement and believe that it will result in the removal of the retrieval system as it is an entanglement hazard, and thus lead to confusion.

Lastly, in the proposed standard are several Appendixes that offer additional non-mandatory information and guides. Some of them are Procedures for Atmospheric Testing, Examples of Confined Space Programs, Sample Entry Permits and best of all, a Cross Reference to 1910.146. Although they may be non-mandatory, they are still a great resource for compliance and might even make you a better company by simply adopting them.

For example, under the Sample Entry Permits there is an example of a permit for “replacing a cable communication in a sewer” that is a great tool to determine what should be looked at while performing that type of work. The sample permit is a great example of providing details. Some of the details are General Information, Acceptable Entry Conditions, Personnel, Equipment Needed, Testing Results, Space Evaluation, Authorisation section and a Verification Audit. Using all of this information may be a bit time consuming but the thorough evaluation of the space is outstanding.

The newly proposed standard will have a reference point of 29CFR1926.1200 Subpart AA Confined Spaces in Construction.

In summary

So, these are the differences as I see them. So what does all this mean? I have to admit that the committee did a great job of taking the 1910.146 standard and converting it into a workable 1926 standard. I also have to say that the changes are not so dramatic, having taught the 1910 standard to several hundred people, and a construction contractor should have no real shock and awe at the new standard.

The bad side? I, for one, would have loved to have seen some mandatory requirements for retrieval and rescue aside from those in GI. As a confined space rescue team leader, I would like to have seen where business is mandated to establish rescue if the fire department declined the opportunity. All too often we see that a business just calls 9-1-1, believing 'Hey, the fire department will perform the rescue!' I believe there is an obligation to the employee and the fire department for a successful rescue.

Overall though, the standard is very similar, very manageable and easily complied with for construction. For those in general industry, this standard will align those construction companies that you hire to be in line with what your employees already do. In either case, this standard is much better than what was had before in 1926.21(b)(6)(i) and (ii).

Kudos to the committee that was responsible for writing a new confined space standard for construction.

Published: 22nd Jul 2013 in Health and Safety Middle East

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