Finding the Right Approach

[<P>What do you </i>mean<i>, this is a non-permit required confined space?</P>]

I started (and continue) my professional career, for better or worse, in the Golden State of California. As a result, much of my early understanding of health and safety management practices was framed around the early requirements of California's Occupational Safety and Health Division (Cal/OSHA). I remember my first reading of the confined space entry requirements in California (there was no federal OSHA confined space entry standard, as yet), and at that time they made immediate sense to me, with extensive precautions required for this potentially high-risk work activity.

Then something strange happened: In 1993, federal OSHA finalized the long-awaited (fed-OSHA first issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) on July 24, 1975) rule on "Permit-Required Confined Spaces." And nothing has been the same since!

What Was the Intent?
The final standard, as issued, differentiates between permit-required confined spaces and non-permit required confined spaces. The standard defines a permit-required confined space as "a confined space that has one or more of the following characteristics: (1) Contains or has a potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere; (2) Contains a material that has the potential for engulfing an entrant; (3) Has an internal configuration such that 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, (4) Contains any other recognized serious safety or health hazard."

The standard further defines a non-permit confined space as "a confined space that does not contain or, with respect to atmospheric hazards, have the potential to contain any hazard capable of causing death or serious physical harm."

Within the preamble of the 1993 Final Rule, OSHA explained its reasoning quite succinctly:

"OSHA believes that the approach taken in paragraphs (c)(5) and (c)(7) of the final rule is consistent with that taken in ANSI Z117.1-1989. The major difference is that the consensus standard treats all non-permit required confined spaces alike, whereas the OSHA standard separates them into two categories--permit spaces with atmospheric hazards controlled by means of ventilation alone and permit spaces that have been reclassified as non-permit confined spaces because the hazards have been eliminated. This two-pronged approach better protects employees than the ANSI standard for two basic reasons. First, by minimizing the amount of regulation that applies to spaces whose hazards have been eliminated, it encourages employers to actually remove all hazards from permit spaces, which is the best possible protection for entrants. . . . Second, for permit spaces that can be maintained safe by ventilation alone, the regulation specifies exactly what is required of the employer."

While this sounds good, it is the actions that result to comply with the requirements that truly create the safe work environment. And while huge amounts of data exist for the telecommunications and electrical utility industries, it is unlikely this amount of data exists for any other industry.

What Should Have Happened?
I must admit, as I reviewed the new federal standard and considered the potential for impacts on programs in California, I became more and more conflicted. Regardless of the discussions within the preamble, what really is the difference between a permit-required and a non-permit confined space, and are we really providing for appropriate levels of protection in allowing for this distinction?

What is a non-permit confined space? Specifically, OSHA states that an employer "need not comply with paragraphs (d) through (f) and (h) through (k)1" (leaving training as the only required element remaining from the full permit program) if: "(A) The employer can demonstrate that the only hazard posed by the permit space is an actual or potential hazardous atmosphere; (B) The employer can demonstrate that continuous forced air ventilation alone is sufficient to maintain that permit space safe for entry; (C) The employer develops monitoring and inspection data that supports the demonstrations required . . . ; (D) If an initial entry of the permit space is necessary to obtain the data required . . . the entry is performed in compliance with . . . this section; (E) The determinations and supporting data required . . . are documented by the employer and are made available to each employee . . . ; and (F) Entry into the permit space . . . is performed in accordance with the requirements . . . of this section."

This means, then, that an employer may not simply "assume" a confined space is a non-permit confined space, but rather must develop data to support this determination, and this data must be documented and maintained. It has been my experience that many employers fail to ensure this critical step is completed, but rather, base decisions on assumptions regarding actual or potential hazards, and frequently yield to what appears to be a more convenient path that requires the commitment of less resources--both up front and over time. The declaration of a space as "non-permit required" should be supported by extensive and well documented data and decision-making criteria.

This may be much more resource-intensive that an actual permitted entry and is most appropriate for spaces that are entered with sufficient frequency to generate the required data, as opposed to a small number of entries over a short period of time or very infrequent entries over longer periods of time.

In addition to these allowances, the standard further allows for the reclassification of a permit-required confined space after all hazards within the space have been eliminated (29 CFR 1910.146 (c)(7)). In order to make this reclassification, the employer must ensure the permit space poses no actual or potential atmospheric hazards and that all hazards are eliminated without entry into the space. The reclassification of the space as a non-permit confined space remains for as long as the non-atmospheric hazards remain eliminated. (OSHA further notes that the control of atmospheric hazards through forced air ventilation does not constitute elimination of the hazards, and refers back to Paragraph (c)(5).)

Once again, the employer is obligated to document the basis for the determination that all hazards have been eliminated; the documentation must include the date, the location of the space, and the signature of the person making the determination. Again, I have seen far too many employers use this "out," treating a confined space as a non-permit confined space as opposed to a reclassified confined space. (As an example, I have seen entries into cooling towers managed as "non-permitted" entries, as opposed to "reclassified spaces," without the supporting documentation. While the potential for hazardous atmospheres may exist within cooling towers, the presence of mechanical hazards is much more prevalent, and extensive thought needs to go into decision-making when entering such spaces.) While the differences appear subtle, they do exist.

What Went Wrong, and What Can be Done About It?
Somewhere along the way, we've become confused. What is the intent of the permit anyway? Does it not document all of the steps taken to prepare the space? In the absence of the permit, how do we "mistake proof" the steps to be taken, especially in the case of the "reclassification" of spaces? Once non-permit confined spaces are documented, how should we monitor the workplace for changes that might affect those spaces, causing them to become permit-required?

It is critically important for the individuals responsible for the confined space entry to not only understand the requirements as stated in the regulations, but also the logic and thought process behind those regulations. It would benefit anyone involved in the confined entry process to read the preamble to the standard to obtain a better understanding of the reason for the requirements; if this happened, perhaps more attention to the details of data development and documentation would result.

While not a big fan of the non-permit confined space designation, I have come to believe the approach can work if done properly. However, it is this author's opinion that the designation of a confined space as non-permit required in any work environment should be the exception rather than the rule. The up-front determination that a space is "non-permit-required" should necessarily consume more time and resources than assuming the space is "permit-required" because so fewer controls are in place.

Most certainly, this decision must be based on the knowledge that no hazards are present or have the potential to develop, rather than on "convenience" or "resource limitations"; assumptions should never play a part in the decision. Attention to proper evaluation of confined spaces, documentation of actual conditions over time, and communication to those entering the spaces are all critical components of a safe confined space entry program, whether the space be permit-required or not.

1. These paragraphs include: (d) Permit-required confined space program (permit space program); (e) Permit system; (f) Entry permit; (h) Duties of authorized entrants; (i) Duties of attendants; (j) Duties of entry supervisors; and (k) Rescue and emergency services.

This article originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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