New OSHA Rule for Confined Spaces in Construction

2411692991_d614c1963c_zEarlier this year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) added a new rule to provide increased protections to construction workers working in confined spaces on construction projects. Confined spaces are things such as bins, pits, manholes, crawl spaces, sewers, HVAC ducts, tanks, etc. The new confined spaces standards went into effect on August 3, 2015. Although currently in effect, OSHA issued a memorandum stating it would postpone enforcement of the new standard until October 2, 2015, if the employer is “making good faith efforts to comply” with the new standards. The delayed enforcement of the new standards is discussed in more detail, below.

“This rule will save lives of construction workers. Unlike most general industry worksites, construction sites are continually evolving, with the number and characteristics of confined spaces changing as work progresses. This rule emphasizes training, continuous worksite evaluation and communication requirements to further protect workers’ safety and health.”

— Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, Dr. David Michaels

The New Confined Spaces Standards

Confined spaces are defined by OSHA as a space that: (1) are large enough and so configured that an employee can bodily enter it; (2) have limited or restricted means for entry and exit; and (3) are not designed for continuous employee occupancy.

The new standards require an employer to designate a “competent person” to perform an initial evaluation of project site before construction begins and identify all confined spaces. Employers are required to train their employees on the existence, locations and dangers of each confined space on the project. Employers must also monitor the confined spaces for air contaminant and engulfment hazards with regularity.

There are rigorous training and communication requirements under these new standards. Construction projects with multiple contractors require the contractors to coordinate and share safety information, if they have workers entering the confined spaces. Training to employees must be provided in both a language and vocabulary the employee can understand. General contractors (called “controlling contractors” under this rule and defined as “the employer that has overall responsibility for construction at the worksite”) are responsible for ensuring that their subcontractors are complying with these new standards.

Delayed Enforcement

OSHA has delayed enforcement of these new confined spaces standards until October 2, 2015. OSHA has confirmed it will not issue citations to employers “making good faith efforts to comply” with the new standards, as long as the employer is in compliance with the training requirements of the new standard, or the training requirements of the former standards found at 29 CFR 1926.21(b)(6)(i).

Factors OSHA will consider when evaluating whether an employer is engaged in good faith efforts to comply with the new standard include:

  • If the employer has not trained its employees as required under the new standard, whether the employer has scheduled such training,
  • If the employer does not have the equipment required for compliance with the new standard, including personal protective equipment, whether the employer has ordered or otherwise arranged to obtain such equipment required for compliance and is taking alternative measures to protect employees from confined space hazards, and
  • Whether the employer has engaged in any additional efforts to educate workers about confined space hazards and protect workers from those hazards.

What should you do?

If you are a contractor that has employees, subcontractors or visitors working on a construction project involving confined spaces, you should familiarize yourself with the requirements of OSHA’s new standards and implement them immediately. The new standards can get technical. Communication with your employees and subcontractors is strongly emphasized. You could face significant fines and citations for violations of the new standards. You can find more information on the new standards and tools to assist with compliance on OSHA’s Confined Spaces page.

Photo: Peter Dutton

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