Understanding the Differences Between Construction and General Industry Confined Space Regulations 

Understanding the Differences Between Construction and General Industry Confined Space Regulations 

Because construction was specifically excluded from following the general industry confined space standard, OSHA would have to cite concerns in the construction industry under several different areas.

Rarely are construction and general industry OSHA standards identical or interchangeable. When it comes to OSHA’s confined space standards, there are some notable differences between the Construction 29 CFR 1926, Subpart AA standard and General Industry 29 CFR 1910.146. Before we dive into the confined space details, let’s first define some terms. OSHA says that “general industry” is any industry not included in construction, agriculture, or maritime. OSHA clarifies other nuances in several letters of interpretation (LOI):

  • The first is from February 1, 1996. OSHA makes it clear that Section 29 CFR 1910.12(b) defines construction work as "construction, alteration, and/or repair including painting, and decorating." Further, construction work is defined as work not limited to new construction, which includes the repair of existing facilities, and the replacement of structures and their components.”
  • OSHA also clarified the difference between construction and maintenance in 1999, by saying maintenance is “keeping equipment or a structure in proper condition through routine, scheduled or anticipated measures without having to significantly alter the structure or equipment in the process. For equipment, this generally means keeping the equipment working properly by taking steps to prevent its failure or degradation.”
  • OSHA clarified maintenance vs. construction activities on November 18, 2003, by explaining "Construction work is not limited to new construction but can include the repair of existing facilities or the replacement of structures and their components. For example, the replacement of one utility pole with a new, identical pole would be maintenance; however, if it were replaced with an improved pole or equipment, it would be considered construction.”

You might ask yourself, why does it matter if we are doing maintenance or construction? The answer is that maintenance tasks are covered under the general industry regulation. For years, there was only a general industry standard, 1910.146 (a). Because construction was specifically excluded from following the general industry confined space standard, OSHA would have to cite concerns in the construction industry under several different areas:

1. The general duty clause

2. 29 CFR 1926.21 (b)(6) (which no longer exists)

3. 29 CFR 1926.154 (a)(2) “When heaters are used in confined spaces...”. (it’s still in existence but has some vague language)

4. 29 CFR 1926.353 (b)(3) “Where a welder must enter a confined space...” (which still exists but is superseded by the new Subpart AA)

5. 29 CFR 1926.956 (a)(3) “When work is performed in manholes or vaults...” (which no longer exists)

However, OSHA realized that employees would benefit from construction specific standards, so they adopted Confined Spaces in Construction in 2015 (29 CFR 1926, Subpart AA standard). OSHA is serious about keeping employers accountable when it comes to following the standards. Because health risks are elevated for employees, the fines are high too. For instance, in May 2021, OSHA proposed a $119,000 penalty to a  Massachusetts electrical company because inspectors found that “machine operators and maintenance employees entered powder-coating ovens routinely without testing atmospheric conditions or securing natural gas lines and operating machine parts.” As a result, employees at their Ohio facility were exposed to asphyxiation hazards. The proposed fines cover other findings related to lockout/tagout and respiratory protection. (Source: CBIA.) Now that you understand the history and key terms, let’s get to the six differences between 29 CFR 1926, Subpart AA standard and 29 CFR 1910.146.

Who Does the Work Site Inspections

Under the construction standard, a competent person is required to conduct the inspection of the work site to identify all the confined spaces and permit required confined spaces through evaluation of the elements. Under the general industry standard, the employer is required to conduct the inspection of the workplace to identify confined spaces and permit required confined spaces through an evaluation. No matter who is doing the inspection, the space must be evaluated. First, an evaluation must be completed to determine if it is a confined space. Then, if it is a confined space, it must be determined if the confined space contains or has potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere, contains a material that has the potential for engulfing an entrant, has the potential for entrapment 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 hazards.

Coordinating Contractors

When multiple employers are working on a construction jobsite, the controlling contractor and entry employer must coordinate entry operations. This is critical when there is more than one entity performing an entry at the same time and when an entry is performed with activities being conducted around it that could create a hazard in the permit required confined space.

In the general industry standard, the employer is required to inform the contractor doing the work that the workplace contains permit required confined spaces and entry, the hazards identified, precautions, procedures, and the space is only permitted by compliance of a permit required space program.

Frequency of Atmosphere Air Monitoring

Continuous atmosphere air monitoring while in the confined space is required in the construction standard.

Atmosphere air monitoring in general industry is required to be periodically tested, as necessary.

Difference Number Four: Engulfment Hazard Monitoring

An early warning system, that continuously monitors for non-isolated engulfment hazards, is required on construction sites. It must alert the entry employee(s) in sufficient time for safe exit of the confined space.

In the general industry standard, there is no requirement for monitoring of engulfment hazards.

Difference Number Five: Suspending and Canceling Confined Space Permits

If other work around the confined space is creating a hazard or the weather is poor on outside projects, contractors are permitted to get a suspension on their confined space permits with sufficient reasoning.

General industry doesn’t allow similar liberties. If work is suspended, the employer must cancel the confined space permit and obtain a new permit if there is a need to enter the confined space again.

Difference Number Six: Potential Atmospheric Hazards

Construction references five potential atmospheric hazards, including oxygen, flammable gas, combustible dust, toxic chemicals and chemicals at immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) concentrations.

General industry only refers to three potential air quality hazards, including oxygen, flammable gas and toxic chemicals.

No matter which standard you’re following, keeping employees safe in confined spaces must be your number one priority. The stakes are high yet with the proper training and confined space risk assessments workers can safely complete tasks.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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