Close Quarters

By Tom O'Connor | Dec 15, 2015




The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has had general industry and shipyard standards regulating work in confined spaces for years. Those regulations require employers to determine which safety measures and procedures must be established for work to occur. However, those standards did not always apply specifically to the construction industry or the daily work of electricians, linemen and wiremen. As a result, workers in these professions face additional risk with only minimum safeguards in place.

That changed in August 2015, when OSHA’s new Confined Space Standard for the Construction Industry (Subpart AA, 29 CFR 1926 1200–1213) went into effect. The new regulation defines confined and enclosed spaces using construction industry examples such as storage tanks and underground utility vaults.

According to David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor, confined spaces in the construction industry are different from those in most general-industry work sites. 

“Construction sites are continually evolving, with the number and characteristics of confined spaces changing as work progresses,” he said. “This rule emphasizes training, continuous work site evaluation and communication requirements to further protect workers’ safety and health.” 

The new regulation requires employ-
ers to classify confined spaces according to physical and atmospheric hazards identified by an assessment of the space. For the construction industry, there are now four classifications: isolated-hazard confined space, controlled-atmosphere confined space, permit-required confined space, and continuous-system 
permit-required confined space. Permit-required spaces are similar to 
those addressed in OSHA’s General Industry Standard.

Five key provisions are worth noting. The first requires a competent person to identify and assess confined spaces. This also applies to confined spaces that require a work permit. 

The second requires continuous atmospheric monitoring at all times.

The third requires continuous monitoring of engulfment hazards. For example, work being done in a storm drain could present the risk of flash flooding, but placing electronic sensors or posting a lookout person upstream can warn workers at the first sign of a hazard. 

The fourth key provision allows for the suspension of a permit, in lieu of cancellation, in the event that entry conditions change. In this scenario, re-entry can only occur once the entry conditions match those listed on the initial permit.

Finally, the new construction standard provides more coordination when multiple employers or contractors are on one work site. As a result, the activities of one employer or set of workers will not put another at risk. 

According to Curtis Chambers, president of OSHA Training Services Inc., “The new OSHA confined spaces in construction standards also include requirement that affect the ‘controlling contractor’ at a construction site [usually the general contractor] as well as the entity that owns or operates the property [known as the ‘host employer’]. Without understanding how the new rule applies to them, they are setting themselves up for OSHA citations and penalties.”

The construction standard offers clarity and greater specificity to some of the language in the previous general-industry requirements. For example, an employer relying on local emergency personnel for emergency services must coordinate with first responders in advance to ensure they are able to respond in adequate time if an incident occurs.

To protect employees, the regulation requires employers to either eliminate or isolate hazards within a confined space. One example of this is following lockout/tagout procedures in the space. Contractors or employers also must conduct a hazard briefing with workers prior to and immediately following every entry into a confined space.

Additionally, employers are now 
required to train workers on confined-space hazards and new vocabulary included in the regulation so they understand all the terminology. The construction standard uses and defines new terms such as “entry employer” and “entry rescue.” An entry employer is used to identify employers who direct an employee to enter a confined space. Entry rescue describes different forms of acceptable rescue from a confined space.

OSHA Training Services has a free tutorial on its website—“Identifying Confined Spaces on Construction Sites”—to help employers understand if they have confined spaces on their job sites and how to comply with the new regulation. 

For more about confined spaces, training or regulatory requirements, visit

About The Author

O’CONNOR is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm. Reach him at [email protected].

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