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Confined Spaces in Construction

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has enforced a confined spaces standard for general industry since 1993, but the complexity and evolution of construction sites impelled the organization to issue a new rule for confined spaces in construction that went into effect last year.

Although OSHA has enforced the new standard for more than a year, many residential contractors are still unaware that the rule applies to them. “They don’t even know what the standard is,” says Mark Paskell, founder and president of The Contractor Coaching Partnership, a business training and education service for residential contractors.

“And so there are types of work that they’ve been doing a certain way for years that now have to change,” he adds. “It applies to a residential contractor when they’re doing work up in closed-off attics and crawlspaces.”

The new confined spaces standard for construction is more prescriptive than the general industry rule, so here are five key differences that residential contractors should consider.

1. Increased coordination at multi-employer jobsites

The new rule calls for greater collaboration among the various employers at a jobsite to help ensure that hazards are not introduced into a confined space by workers performing tasks outside the space. 

For example, if one employer on the jobsite decides to run a generator near the entrance of a confined space without alerting other employers, it could cause a buildup of carbon monoxide within the space and threaten the lives of the people working inside the space.

2. A “competent person” must evaluate the jobsite     

OSHA defines a competent person as someone who is capable of identifying hazards on the jobsite and has the authority and training to correct them immediately. This individual must evaluate the worksite before construction and throughout the job in order to identify confined spaces and potential risks.  

“If there are hazards in the space, you’re going to have to provide [a way] for rescue and also have constant communication with the person [doing the work],” Paskell says. “That means you’re going to have an extra person that you probably didn’t intend on having to just stand at the hole where they go into the confined space to make sure that the person [doing the work] is OK.”

3. Continuous atmospheric monitoring when possible

The atmosphere within a confined space must be continuously monitored for chemicals unless the employer can show that periodic monitoring is adequate. If the confined space has a hazardous atmosphere or contains serious hazards (such as exposed wiring) that can interfere with a worker’s ability to leave the space unassisted, then the employer must obtain a permit for that space.

Only workers who have been assigned—and trained—to work in a permit space can do so, and before any workers can enter a permit space, the employer has to write a permit that specifies which safety measures must be taken as well as who is allowed to go into the space.

4. Continuous monitoring of engulfment hazards

The threat of engulfment in confined spaces also must be tracked on an ongoing basis. For example, if workers are in a storm sewer, a storm upstream from the workers could cause flash flooding. An electronic sensor or an observer posted upstream from the site could alert the workers in the confined space at the first sign of the hazard, which would give them time to evacuate the space safely.

5. Temporary suspension of a permit when conditions change

A permit may be suspended—as opposed to cancelled—in the event that the conditions required for entry into a confined space—or an unexpected evacuation of the confined space—change. The space must be returned to the conditions listed on the permit before re-entry is allowed.


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