Construction contractors often work in different facilities and in various types of confined spaces. OSHA's general industry standard for confined spaces (29 CFR 1910.146) usually doesn't apply to the construction industry, because the agency determined that confined space entries for construction employees pose conditions that are unique to the construction industry. Thus, contractors might think they're off the hook when it comes to complying with the standard.

However, they might have to think again, because 29 CFR 1910.146 could apply to construction companies that perform confined space work at industrial facilities or sites.

The differences

What exactly are the differences between the construction industry's and general industry's confined space standards? The confined space standard that governs construction is found at 1926.21(b)(6)(i) and states, "All employees required to enter into confined or enclosed spaces shall be instructed as to the nature of the hazards involved, the necessary precautions to be taken, and in the use of protective and emergency equipment required. The employer shall comply with any specific regulations that apply to work in dangerous or potentially dangerous areas."

The construction regs define a "confined or enclosed space" as any space having a limited means of exit which is subject to the accumulation of toxic or flammable contaminants, or has an oxygen-deficient atmosphere.

The general industry regulations at 1910.146 take a different tact. They define a confined space as a space that:

  • is large enough and so configured that an employee can bodily enter and perform assigned work;
  • has limited or restricted means for entry or exit (such as tanks, vessels, silos, storage bins, hoppers, vaults and pits); and
  • is not designed for continuous employee occupancy.

The perfect host

Let's say your construction company is performing work at a foundry. Specifically, your employees are repairing a process vessel. Should you be concerned? It all depends on whether they are working in a permit space (see "Non-permit vs. permit" sidebar). The general industry standard requires employers initially to evaluate their workplaces and determine if there are any permit spaces. Employees must be informed of permit confined spaces through the use of signs or other equally effective means, and unauthorized entry must be prevented. This would also include construction employees working at the facility.

When a host employer arranges to have employees of another employer (contractor) perform work that involves permit space entry, the host employer must inform the contractor that the workplace contains permit spaces and that permit space entry is only allowed through compliance with a permit space program meeting the requirements of the confined space standard.

To make the contractor's entry into the permit-required space safer, the host employer must also:

  • provide to the contractor information on the elements that make the space in question a permit space, including hazards identified;
  • provide to the contractor information on any precautions or procedures that the host employer has implemented in or near permit spaces where contractor employees will be working;
  • coordinate entry operations with the contractor when both employers' employees will be working in or near permit spaces;
  • debrief the contractor at the conclusion of entry operations regarding the permit space program followed and regarding any hazards confronted or created in permit spaces during entry operations.

Contractor requirements

That's not all. 1910.146(c)(9) states that in addition to complying with the permit space requirements that apply to all employers, contractors must:

  • obtain any available information regarding permit space hazards and entry operations from the host employer;
  • coordinate entry operations with the host employer, when both host employer personnel and contractor personnel will be working in or near permit spaces;
  • inform the host employer of the permit space program that the contractor will follow and of any hazards confronted or created in permit spaces, either through a debriefing or during the entry operation.

By working together, the contractor company and host employer can make sure construction workers assigned to confined spaces will be back on the job again tomorrow.

SIDEBAR: Non-permit vs. permit

A non-permit confined space is one that does not contain (or, with respect to atmospheric hazards, has the potential to contain) any hazard capable of causing death or serious physical harm. If the space has hazards that could cause death or harm, you need a permit to enter it.

A confined space is considered a permit-required confined space, or "permit space," if it has one or more of the following deadly characteristics:

  • contains or has a potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere;
  • contains a material that has the potential for engulfing an entrant;
  • has an internal configuration where an entrant could be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls or by a floor which slopes downward and tapers to a smaller cross-section; or
  • contains any other recognized serious safety or health hazard.