Back to Basics, Enforcement and Inspection

Back to Basics: Check Up on Your Confined Space

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine how to comply with OSHA’s confined space standard.

Confined spaces are ones that workers may have to enter but that often pose atmospheric or physical hazards. Hazards of confined spaces can include asphyxiation, electrical and struck-by hazards, engulfment, explosions, and fires. Workers need to be properly trained and equipped before entering a confined space, and their entry must be documented and monitored. Workers may need to exit a space or need rescue if conditions become life-threatening.

Yet violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) permit-required confined space standard aren’t among the agency’s most frequently cited. There’s no current national emphasis program (NEP) for confined space compliance, but there are regional emphasis programs (REP) for transportation tank cleaning operations in Region 5 (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin) and Region 6 (Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas).

The transportation tank cleaning REPs are focused on compliance with the permit-required confined space standard, as well as the standards for emergency action plans and respiratory protection.

Under the REPs, OSHA compliance safety and health officers (CSHO) will also inspect worksites for compliance with hazard communication and personal protective equipment (PPE) standards. At transportation tank cleaning facilities, CSHOs review employers’ injury and illness logs, including first-aid and nursing logs, for the past five years to identify common hazards.

The Region 5 REP is set to expire July 31, 2026; the Region 6 REP expires July 30 of this year, unless renewed.

Under the agency’s “instance-by-instance” enforcement policy, all OSHA area offices may issue multiple citations for permit-required confined space violations. The agency issued enforcement guidance last January, allowing “instance-by-instance” citations for “high-gravity” serious violations of several agency standards, including violations of the permit-required confined space standard.

In a separate enforcement memorandum, the agency reminded regional administrators and area office directors not to group violations but instead to cite them separately. Separate citations result in higher fines.

Your compliance begins by identifying confined spaces and their hazards and only allowing properly trained, equipped, and permitted entrants to enter a confined space. You also must monitor conditions before and during entry and assign an attendant who maintains contact with confined space entrants. Additionally, you must have plans for rescue procedures and rescue personnel available who may be provided by a third-party service.

Incidents, enforcement

Even before the instance-by-instance policy, OSHA vigorously enforced the permit-required confined space standard, including issuing a half-million-dollar penalty.

In 2019, OSHA cited Dana Railcare of Wilmington, Delaware, for six serious and seven willful safety and health violations following a worker fatality at a site in Pittston, Pennsylvania, imposing a $551,226 penalty on the railcar service provider. Citations included six serious and three willful violations of the permit-required confined space standard and three willful violations of the respiratory protection standard. The agency also added the employer to its Severe Violators Enforcement Program (SVEP).

OSHA cited Dana Railcare again in 2020 for workplace safety and health violations at its facility in Wilmington, with $371,276 in proposed penalties.

The agency also cited Trinity Rail and Maintenance Services Inc. of Dallas, Texas, for 11 serious and two willful violations after two workers who were sent into a natural gasoline tank car died from inhaling toxic fumes. An employee became unresponsive after entering the natural gasoline railcar to clean it. A second employee entered the railcar attempting to rescue the fallen worker and was also overcome by toxic fumes. Both workers were recovered and later pronounced dead at a local hospital.

OSHA proposed penalties totaling $419,347.

In 2022, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) cited a Valero Refinery and its contractors after the confined space death of a 35-year-old worker. The employers faced a combined $1,753,375 in state fines.

A worker was found unconscious inside a regenerator overflow well, suspended by his fall protection equipment. A rescue team retrieved the worker. On-site medical treatment was performed, but the worker couldn’t be resuscitated. State investigators determined that a welding torch left in the well was leaking argon, an odorless gas that displaced oxygen inside the confined space.

Confined space hazards

As these incidents and the robust state and federal enforcement show, the hazards of confined space entry can be catastrophic and include asphyxiation, engulfed or trapped workers, explosions or fires, and electrical and struck-by hazards. A permit-required confined space is one that contains or can contain a hazardous atmosphere; contains material that may engulf a worker; and has walls that converge inward or floors that slope downward and taper into a smaller area where a worker can become trapped or asphyxiate.

Other recognized safety or health hazards of a confined space include excessive heat, exposed live wires, and unguarded machinery.

There are confined spaces in workplaces across industries that can include ductwork, equipment housings, hoppers, manholes, pipelines, pits, silos, storage bins, tanks, tunnels, vaults, and vessels. Confined spaces aren’t designed for regular occupancy, but workers may need to enter them, and the means of entry or exit may be limited or restricted.

You need to identify such spaces in your facility or at your worksites. You also must implement a confined space permitting program and inform any affected employees of the permit-required spaces and their associated hazards.

You must ensure personnel don’t enter a permit-required confined space unless they’re properly trained, equipped, and permitted.

You need to identify any physical hazards before allowing employees to enter a confined space, and you need to test and monitor for oxygen content, explosive hazards, flammability, and toxicity before and during employee entry.

You also must provide and maintain PPE and any other equipment workers may need for safe entry and confined space work, such as air-monitoring, communications, or fall protection equipment.

You must ensure any workers who enter a confined space use the provided air-monitoring, communication, fall protection, lighting, PPE, rescue, and ventilation equipment, as well.

A trained attendant must always maintain contact with entrants either visually, by telephone, or by two-way radio. The attendant and entry supervisor monitoring confined space entrants may need to order entrants to evacuate or alert rescue personnel if entrants have become incapacitated.

There also is a requirement in the standard for employee cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training.

A written entry permit must include:

  • Name of the permitted space to be entered, authorized entrants, attendants, and entry supervisors;
  • The purpose of entry, date, and authorized duration of entry;
  • Means of detecting an increase in atmospheric hazard levels;
  • Name and signature of the supervisor who authorized entry;
  • Known hazards in the space and the measures to be taken to either isolate permitted spaces or eliminate or control the confined space hazards;
  • Acceptable conditions for entry;
  • Atmospheric test results, date and time of test(s), and tester’s initials or signature;
  • Name and telephone numbers of rescue or emergency services and the means to be used to contact them;
  • Communication procedures and equipment to be used for maintaining contact during entry;
  • Any special equipment and procedures, including PPE and alarm systems;
  • Any other information needed to ensure employee safety; and
  • Additional permits, such as those for hot work, that have been issued authorizing work in the permit space.

At a multiemployer facility or worksite, all employers are responsible for compliance with confined space requirements. If you rely on a third-party rescue service, you must ensure the rescue service can also protect its own employees.

You also must evaluate emergency response services and select a provider that:

  • Has equipment for rescues like atmospheric monitors, fall protection, extraction equipment, and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that’s appropriate for your particular permit-required confined spaces;
  • Has the ability to respond and conduct a rescue in a timely manner based on site conditions and to conduct a rescue managing the potential hazards specific to the confined space; and
  • Will notify you in the event the rescue team becomes unavailable.

OSHA’s inspection, enforcement procedures

Understanding OSHA’s instructions for enforcing the permit-required confined space standard (CPL 2-00-100) can help. The agency’s instructions to inspectors include considerations for evaluating an employer’s compliance program.

Questions about an employer’s compliance program include the following:

  • How does the employer identify confined spaces that require permitted entry, and does the employer evaluate non-permit-required confined spaces for hazards that would convert them to permit-required spaces?
  • How did the employer evaluate its non-permit-required spaces? Was the evaluation based on historical data?
  • Are mechanical and other nonatmospheric hazards considered in the employer’s evaluation method?
  • Are the spaces multiemployer worksites, or are contractors performing permit space entries?
  • How are employees informed of the employer’s policies?
  • How and when are new or reassigned employees informed of the locations of permit-required confined spaces?
  • Who conducts the employer’s program training, and are trainers knowledgeable about permit-required confined spaces generally and specific confined space conditions at the facility or worksite?
  • How is training verified, and how does the employer evaluate employee proficiency in the confined space program?
  • Where is the written program normally kept?
  • Who is in charge of the employer’s permit-required confined space program?
  • Does the program provide for appropriate employee input on the classification of spaces, identification of hazards, training, adequacy of entry procedures and precautions, and other areas of employee knowledge or experience that might be pertinent?
  • Which employees have been assigned the duties of “authorized entrant,” “attendant,” and “entry supervisor”?
  • Who authorizes confined space entry? What are the positions and training of employees responsible for authorizing entry?
  • What is the size and configuration of each confined space, and how have physical properties—molecular weight, vapor pressure, etc.—of atmospheric hazards been considered in the design of the ventilation plan?
  • What is the capacity of ventilation equipment, and is it adequate to maintain satisfactory entry conditions in a worst-case scenario?
  • How does the employer inform entrants of the need to exit a space when a hazardous atmosphere is detected?
  • If nonentry rescue is used, what are the employer’s reasons for using it?
  • What equipment is used in nonentry rescue?
  • If the host employer’s own employees perform on-site rescue, how many employees are assigned to rescue, and what is their training?
  • If a third-party rescue service is used, who provides the service, and where are they located?
  • How is the arrangement between the employer and the rescue service documented? Contract? Letter of agreement? Verbal agreement?
  • Has the rescue service met the standard’s training requirements?

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