Though it has moved at a snail’s pace since committing in 1994 to develop a confined space standard for construction, OSHA nevertheless defied observers, who were expecting a summer pronouncement, by announcing last month that it would wait another six months to issue the proposed rule.

The standard’s development began in 1994 in the wake of litigation between the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and OSHA over the agency’s proposed Confined Space Standard for General Industry. That litigation produced a settlement that included an agreement by OSHA to develop a separate standard for construction while the standard for general industry was put in place.

Subsequently, OSHA’s Advisory Committee for Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH) established a work group that developed recommendations. In 1999 and 2000, OSHA gathered feedback on the recommendations and developed a draft proposed standard. In 2003, OSHA presented the draft to small entity representatives and incorporated their input. In February of this year, the proposed rule was reviewed by the ACCSH.

Last year, OSHA said notice of proposed rule making (NPRM) would be ready in March 2005. However, late last month, OSHA announced that the NPRM would come out in December.

In the draft proposed rule that has circulated for the past several years, the main differences with the general industry rule reflect the unique, evolving and changing quality of construction sites relative to typical fixed industrial workplaces. In fixed workplaces, confined spaces are usually well-established and their hazards well-known. On construction sites, confined spaces are created, each with unique features.

Key Provisions

Here are some highlights of the draft that was presented to ACOSH in February:

  • Creates four classes of confined spaces:
    • Permit Required – has physical or atmospheric hazards
    • Continuous System-Permit Required – part of a larger confined space which can’t be isolated and, as a result, could become hazardous (such as a sewer)
    • Controlled Atmosphere – has no physical hazards and only requires ventilation; no permit required
    • Isolated Hazard – has no physical or atmospheric hazards; no permit required
  • The General Contractor is responsible to coordinate all confined space activity between subs on the site.
  • A confined space is permit required only if it must be entered to evaluate it.
  • No written program is required if the standard is used.
  • Explicit training and permitting requirements are defined.
  • Rescue requirement is more performance oriented; contractors must ensure they can respond in a timely manner, but they are not required to provide rescue services nor evaluate the services that are available in the area.
  • An early warning system is required for sewer and other continuous system work.

After the proposal is published, OSHA will hold public hearings and accept comments for several months. Then it will write a final rule based on this input. The final rule normally takes one to two years or more before it is published.

For further information on the proposed standard, contact the OSH Division.

[Steve Clark]