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Misunderstandings About OSHA's Confined Spaces Standard
Misunderstandings About the Applicability of OSHA's Permit-required Confined Spaces Standard
August 1, 2013 - When OSHA published their Permit-required Confined Space standard (1910.146), it was inevitable that some people would misunderstand one or more parts of that complex standard. Surprisingly, though, the employers I find who misunderstand the requirements of this OSHA regulation are often not the ones who have implemented a permit-required confined space entry program at their site, but rather the ones who have not! That is because many employers mistakenly believe they do not have confined spaces on their premises, or, they do have permit spaces on their site but think the standard does not apply to them because their employees do not enter those spaces.
So in this month’s blog post, I am going to address the three most common myths, mistakes and misinterpretations I have seen made by employers regarding the applicability of OSHA’s permit-required confined space entry standard to their operations.
Mistake #1 – “This standard does not apply to me because I do not have any confined spaces at my facility.”
When many employers think of OSHA’s definition of a confined space, they envision only tanks and silos. And if none of these are present at their work site, then they surmise that the OSHA permit-required confined space standard does not apply to them. But what many employers often overlook are other potential confined spaces that are present at their site, such as but certainly not limited to many crawl spaces, air handlers, duct-work, bag houses, utility vaults and tunnels, chimneys, large mixing vats and blenders, trash compactors, material balers, sump pits, large furnaces, sewer systems, drainage culverts, and even dock leveler pits. Of course, the size and configuration of these spaces will ultimately dictate if they are actual confined spaces or not, but in a nutshell, if the space is hard to get in and out of and is large enough to get your entire body inside, it is a confined space. And if an employer has a confined space at their site, the standard requires the employer to evaluate that space to determine if it is a permit-required confined space.
And don’t fall for the common misconception that a confined space has just one way in or out; as OSHA clarifies for us in the preamble to the permit-required confined space standard, a space can have multiple points of entry or exit, but if those entry/exit points are all difficult to get to and/or through (what OSHA refers to as a “limited” means of entry or exit), then it could still be considered a confined space. We have uploaded a free online tutorial titled “Understanding OSHA's Definition of a Confined Space" (click here) for anyone wanting additional guidance on identifying confined spaces.
Mistake #2 – “This standard does not apply to me because I have no employees who will be entering a permit-required confined space.”
Even if workers will never enter the permit-required confined spaces at their employer’s site, that employer still has at least one obligation under this standard. At a minimum, they must notify employees of the existence of their permit spaces and prohibitions against entering those spaces, typically by posting a danger sign at or near the entry point of each space to warn employees the space is off limits to everyone except authorized personnel [see 1910.146(c)(2)]. Or they could take other measures to secure the space, such as placing a lock on the entry portal and securing the key so no one can enter. And, as you will see in the next paragraph, the employer will have additional obligations should workers of a different employer (such as an on-site contractor) enter a permit space(s) at the host employer’s site.
Mistake #3 – “I have no obligations under the OSHA confined space standard because I hire outside contractors to perform all work inside permit-required confined spaces at our facility.”
I have already mentioned the requirement for employers to evaluate all confined spaces and identify any that are classified as permit required by posting a sign (or equally effective means), even if none of their employees will enter the spaces. But they have several more obligations under the standard when they have a contractor (or any other employer) come on site to conduct work inside a permit space [see 1910.146(c)(8) & (9)].
First, the host employer must notify the on-site contractor of the existence of any permit space(s) at their site, and they must also inform them that entry into any of those spaces is only allowed under a program meeting the requirements of the OSHA permit-required confined space standard. Furthermore, the host employer must explain to the contractor the hazards and experience they might have had with the space the contractor will be entering that make it a permit-required confined space, as well as any precautions or procedures (if any) they have implemented for the protection of any employees located in or near permit spaces where the contractor will be working. And at the end of entry operations, the host employer must debrief the contractor regarding the permit-required confined space procedures followed and any hazards they might have confronted or created in the permit spaces while conducting their entry operations.
As you can see, employers have some level of obligation under the OSHA permit-required confined space standard if there is a confined space at their worksite. At the very least, they must evaluate the space to determine if it is a permit space, and if so, post a sign (or take some other means) to notify employees of its existence and prohibitions for entry. And if on-site contractors will be working in their permit space(s), there is a mandatory exchange of information that must take place between both parties.
So take this opportunity to reexamine your work site to make certain you have not overlooked any confined spaces. And also make certain you have procedures in place to identify all your permit spaces, as well as to make the mandatory contacts with on-site contractors entering permit-spaces at your site.
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