OSHA Finally Answers This Common Question
March 1, 2016 - I teach a lot of excavation competent person training classes, and more times than not I get the following question: “Trenches and other excavations are permit-required confined spaces, right?”
While a trench or other excavation may seem to fit within the definition of a confined space per the Federal OSHA permit-required confined space entry standards, the answer is “No, trenches and other excavations are not regulated by OSHA as permit-required confined spaces." However, employers are still required to follow certain precautions spelled out in the OSHA excavation standard (Subpart P) that are similar to those required when we conduct work inside a permit-required confined space; we just don’t have to utilize a permit.
First of all, why do I say a trench or other excavation is not regulated as a permit-required confined space? Because Federal OSHA clearly tells us they are not. OSHA did us all a big favor and clearly stated their stance on this confusing issue when they published their new confined spaces in construction standard last year (2015). Section 1926.1201 of that new Federal OSHA confined spaces in construction standard sets the scope of the standard, and paragraph (b) of that section spells out the exceptions to the confined space standard. And paragraph (b) clearly states that this standard does not apply to construction work regulated by 1926 Subpart P—Excavations.
However, employers must keep in mind that it is possible to have a confined space present inside of an excavation, and entry into that confined space could be regulated by OSHA’s permit-required confined space standard. For example, you could have a six foot deep trench that runs several hundred feet long (not a confined space), the install a new 30-inch diameter pipeline inside that trench and tie it into the sewer; that new 30-inch pipeline (and the existing sewer) would be regulated as a permit-required confined space. But work conducted in the trench itself (outside of the pipe) is not.
But sometimes there is a potential for a hazardous atmosphere inside of a trench or other excavation, and precautions are necessary to protect employees who enter them to perform work. Examples of such situations include, but are not limited to:
- Trenches cut near landfills (possibility of methane gas seeping onto the space);
- Excavations cut near underground tanks or pipelines that have been leaking for an extended period of time (the chemicals could start to volatize when exposed to sunlight and warmth);
- Tapping/tying into an existing sewer line inside of a trench to make a connection (release of methane gas and possibly H2S); and,
- Tools and equipment that run on combustion engines are utilized inside of a trench (gasoline powered saws, generators, and compactors are a few items that come to mind).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Curtis Chambers is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and holds a Master of Science degree in Occupational Safety and Health. He has held numerous leadership positions managing and evaluating health and safety programs and providing training on workplace safety and health topics at various public organizations and private corporations. Mr. Chambers is currently the President of OSHA Training Services Inc. Visit their website at www.oshatraining.com.