The final years of the Obama administration have seen several changes to OSHA regulations in an agency not known for its ability to quickly promulgate standards. In 2015, OSHA released a new subpart to the 1926 construction standard. Subpart AA, also noted as part 1201, is the Permit Required Confined Space for construction standard.
“Interesting,” you may say, “but I am not in construction. Why should I be concerned with construction confined-space standards?” It’s important to remember that the activity you are performing, not the industry classification, determines whether you follow 1910 General Industry standards or 1926 Construction standards. “Construction work” means work for construction, alteration, and/or repair, including painting and decorating (see http://plnt.sv/1606-OSHA for an August 1994 OSHA memorandum on “construction vs. maintenance”). Short of routine cleaning and component replacement, your activities could be considered construction activities in the eyes of a compliance officer.
Work in and around electrical vaults presents unique hazards for workers. The obvious hazard is electrical, and most companies have done their due diligence in reducing exposure. But are you evaluating whether the vault is a permit-required confined space (PRCS)?
According to the new standards, a space will now be considered confined when it meets the following construction industry definition:
- It is large enough and so configured that an employee can bodily enter it (notice the difference from the general industry standard in that it drops the “and perform assigned work” wording),
- It has limited or restricted means for entry and exit, AND
- It is not designed for continuous occupancy.
By the OSHA definition above, you are most likely entering a confined space when you enter an electrical vault. Further, a confined space is a PRCS if it contains any other recognized hazard. Until you verify that all electrical hazard exposures are at a zero-energy state, you are entering a PRCS when going into an electrical vault. In practice, rarely can all energy be at a zero state in the entire vault. Because of that, any entry into an electrical vault is a PRCS entry requiring that all permit procedures be followed. It is not feasible to use alternative methods and nearly impossible to maintain a zero-energy state.
The solution: Upgrade your current confined-space program to one based on the requirements found in 29CFR1926 Subpart AA. OSHA stated in the preamble to its new standard that compliance with the construction standard will meet compliance with the general industry standard. However, given the greater prescriptive nature of the construction standard, the reverse isn’t also true.
So what does such an upgrade look like? To start, you’ll need a “competent person” who can assess PRCS requirements on a regular – or possibly daily – basis. Be selective when choosing a candidate for this position rather than making it an arbitrary assignment. You will need documentation of the person’s competency – in some cases of noncompliance, this person can be held criminally liable. If you select an untrained hourly worker, you are not only setting everyone up for failure, but also you’re telling a compliance officer that you did not take this responsibility seriously.
After making a wise choice, be sure to empower your PRCS expert with the authority to start and stop entries as well as provide him or her with ongoing education and certification. Your investment in this role will pay additional dividends in an actively engaged employee who sees value in this responsibility.
Next, your PRCS expert should evaluate and re-evaluate your spaces depending on the activity performed there. Unless you are cleaning, troubleshooting, or making in-kind exact replacements in your electrical vault, you could be viewed as performing construction activities in your PRCS.
You will also want to revisit your rescue program. Calling 911 is not a rescue plan. OSHA requires rescuers to be familiar with and practice actual rescues at least once per year. It’s unrealistic to assume your local fire department can train all potential responders to practice rescue within your spaces every year.
Lastly, the new subpart requires that if you are relying on the local fire department for a rescue, the department must notify you if it is not going to be available to assist in your rescue. If your entries are planned and infrequent, it may not be cost-effective to train and maintain rescue crews. Consider performing only entries that can be self-rescue or nonentry rescue. Note, too, that an increasing number of companies perform confined-space rescue services on demand.
Next, upgrade your equipment to include ventilation failure and engulfment monitoring. Don’t forget to train and document employees expected to use this equipment. Record daily or frequent bump tests to prove your equipment is in good working order and ready for service. If you can, get extras of the exact same model of monitors, because this equipment can and will fail. The similarity of like models will prevent the need for any additional training, documentation, and calibration. You may not need all of this equipment for all your entries, but you will be ready for any construction entry.
Train, maintain, and document. Soon the new standard will become the new norm. It is only a matter of time before the general industry confined-space requirements found in 29CFR1910.146 will be replaced by the requirements found in the construction industry standard 29CFR1926.1201. Given the speed with which this agency is beginning to move, that may happen sooner rather than later.
Upgrading your program to the new subpart AA of the construction standard will ensure compliance regardless of the activity. Of more importance, the review of your PRCS program itself will improve your safety program. These complicated changes might seem onerous at first, but remember their ultimate purpose. They will help keep your workers safe, and that’s the most important thing for any employer to do.