A competent person for confined spaces should be the employer’s specialist. To meet OSHA

Residual Confined Space Hazards ... An Unintended Booby Trap!

Using elements of the new construction industry regulation for confined spaces in a general industry program will go a long way to save the lives of those who would otherwise fall victim to them.

For those of you that enjoy watching or reading a good action thriller, or have experience in the military or police, you probably already understand that an effective booby trap should be undetectable to the intended target(s), can be set and remain "loaded" and ready to be sprung for a good period of time, and will cause confusion and irrational reactions for those not caught in its immediate effects. In the old days, booby traps relied on very thin trip wires as their trigger; with the advent of electric eyes and lasers, the somewhat detectable trip wire is a relic from the past. But the booby trap is still a very real hazard for the military and police who must be aware of their existence and, for the actor playing the role of our action hero, not so much.

But there are other booby traps out there. And these booby traps do not intentionally "target" any unsuspecting souls. They are not set in a malicious manner, but their effects can be every bit as lethal as the ones that are intentionally set. These booby traps are not set with criminal intent, but, truthfully, the fact that they have been responsible for multiple fatalities among unsuspecting confined space entrants borders on criminal. These are the booby traps that are left behind in a confined space after certain entry operations or other work tasks are completed. And the point about being undetectable without certain precautions and equipment is a perfect example of the most insidious of them all—atmospheric hazards.

Case Study
A newly manufactured process vessel is delivered to a facility on a flatbed tractor trailer. This vessel is constructed of fiberglass and poly and is 20 feet long and 8 feet in diameter with one 26-inch circular portal and multiple 4- to 8-inch pipe flanges. The factory, upon completing its preparations for shipment, sealed the entire vessel in shrink-wrap to keep contaminants out of the interior space. The receiving facility took delivery of the vessel and assigned two employees to do a pre-acceptance inspection of the entire vessel, inside and out. The employees did not see any signage on the vessel to indicate that it was a permit-required confined space, although they were fully aware that it fit the definition of a confined space—but as the vessel was new and there were no identified hazards, they proceeded to enter.

As the vessel lay on its side on dunnage with the single portal about 4 feet above grade, the first entrant climbed up a portable stair ladder, cut the shrink wrap with his knife, and slid into the vessel with camera and headlamp.  The second employee was standing at the bottom of the portable stair ladder ready to take notes. Almost immediately the second employee heard a loud thump and climbed the stair ladder to see what may have happened. Upon seeing his co-worker lying motionless in the vessel, his reaction was to climb in to help. I think you know what happens next.

In the course of the investigation of these two fatalities, it was determined that the manufacturer had infused the vessel with nitrogen to inert the interior of the vessel and then sealed the vessel with an airtight shrink-wrap intended to reduce the potential for any organic matter entering the vessel and contaminating it. But the only indication of the presence of the inert gas atmosphere was buried in the delivery documents, with no signage whatsoever on the vessel itself.

It can be argued that the presence of the asphyxiating atmosphere was communicated in the delivery paperwork, and I am sure in the litigation process that point was indeed argued. But was this an effective manner to communicate this lethal hazard? And that leads me to one of the key points of this article: communication to the extent that all hazards of the confined space are effectively communicated to all affected parties.

With the promulgation of OSHA 1926 Subpart AA, Confined Spaces in Construction, the requirements for effective communications have certainly been enhanced compared to 1910.146, Permit Required Confined Spaces. In fact, if you are paying attention to the titles of these two documents, you will have noticed that the general industry regulation addresses permit-required confined spaces, whereas the construction industry regulation does not delineate between confined spaces and permit-required confined spaces. More on that in a bit. The bigger question is in what ways has the construction regulation enhanced safety for employees compared to the general industry regulation?

Of course, we are required to comply with the regulation specific to the nature of the work activities we are engaged in. Always ask, are we engaged in general industry activities or construction? But while being in compliance with the regulation that applies to its activities doesn’t limit an employer from exceeding the OSHA requirements, if in fact it does, it’s certainly an attitude and practice that makes for an even safer workplace.

For the general industry employer who is compliant with 1910.146 but chooses to include elements of 1926 subpart AA in its program, that can and will in many cases provide increased worker protection. The two elements of 1926 Subpart AA that I would like to point out are the creation of some new roles, and particularly the role of competent person for confined spaces and permit space entry communication and coordination.

§1926.1203 General requirements.
(a) Before it begins work at a worksite, each employer must ensure that a competent person identifies all confined spaces in which one or more of the employees it directs may work, and identifies each space that is a permit space, through consideration and evaluation of the elements of that space, including testing as necessary.

Notice that the competent person is tasked with identifying all confined spaces and will consider and evaluate the elements of that space, including testing as necessary. This may not seem all that significant, but it is huge and will save lives. A competent person for confined spaces should be the employer's specialist. To meet OSHA’s definition of a competent person, this individual requires a thorough understanding of confined spaces through study and experience. The competent person should be equipped with the knowledge, equipment, and reference resources so as to be able to fulfill their role of identifying and classifying the spaces, as well as several other duties. Too often do we read or hear of employers that sent their entry team out to a non-permit-required confined space with little in the way of making an accurate assessment of the elements of that space. With the assignment of the competent person, that gap will be closed and many disasters will be avoided through the proper assessment and identification of previously unidentified hazards.

Again, this equipment for a competent person is not specifically included as a part of the general industry requirements, but I don’t think it is even arguable that it would be an excellent role to add to a general industry program.

The second element of 1926 Subpart AA that would be good to consider employing in general industry confined space programs is the permit space entry communication and coordination section. This section details the types of information exchange between the host employer, the controlling contractor, and the entry employer. These various employers I referred to will not necessarily be present in a general industry workforce, but the equivalent positions can be easily correlated to positions within one employer's ranks. It is important to ensure that all of the parties that would be the equivalents of these roles be included in the communication and coordination effort, but as important is the types of information that need to be shared. The information includes:

  • Prior to entry
    • The location of each known permit space
    • The hazards or potential hazards in each space or the reason it is a permit space
    • Any precautions the host employer or any previous controlling contractor or entry employer implemented for the protection of employees in the permit space
    • After entry operations
      • Controlling contractor must debrief each entity that entered a permit space regarding the permit space program followed and any hazards confronted or created in the permit space(s) during entry operations.
      • The entry employer must inform the controlling contractor in a timely manner of the permit space program followed and of any hazards confronted or created in the permit space(s) during entry operations.
      • The controlling contractor must apprise the host employer of the information exchanged with the entry entities pursuant to this subparagraph.

OK, I'll admit that that was a mouthful, but I took the liberty of highlighting one particular word that appeared twice in that bulleted text and that word is created! This one little bit of information goes back to the very beginning of this article. Do we fall victim to a booby trap, or are we left the rest of our lives knowing that we were in a position to identify and share the information regarding the presence of that booby trap and failed to do so? Neither position is one I want to be part of.

So in summary, I think that employing some of the elements of the newly published construction industry regulation for confined spaces into a general industry program will go a long way in preventing booby traps to be left hidden and will save lives of those who would otherwise fall victim to them. In order for this to become an effective practice, I do believe that employers should first identify and assign a confined space competent person, and the second critical element is to employ an effective means of communicating the presence of these residual hazards that are left in place after certain entry operations. Of course, the sharing of information will be an effective measure only if that same information is understood and acted upon.

If you see that your confined space program could benefit from the inclusion of these two elements, please consider incorporating them and remember that the best way to protect your employees from those confined space booby traps is to send that competent person out to literally sniff them out and to share the information regarding prior entry operations or any process involving a confined space that may have left a booby trap in place.

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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