There are many situations in which construction workers may find themselves in a confined space. Entering and working in these spaces poses special risks and should be approached accordingly.

In this article, we'll go over what people working in the construction industry need to know to deal with confined spaces safely.

Confined Spaces

According to OSHA's definition, confined spaces are those that:

  • Have limited means of entry or exit
  • Are large enough for a worker to enter
  • Are not intended for regular or continuous occupancy

Confined spaces include:

  • Sewers and pits
  • Crawl spaces and attics
  • Boilers and storage tanks
  • Ventilation shafts
  • Access tunnels
  • Telecommunications vaults
  • Elevator shafts

Permit Spaces

In addition to the dangers posed by small spaces with limited access, there is a further class of confined space called a “permit space.” These are spaces in which only trained and certified workers may work, and only after the employer has signed off on a permit that identifies and confirms the presence of adequate security precautions.

Permit spaces, according to OSHA, are confined spaces that pose a “hazardous atmosphere, engulfment hazard, or other serious hazard, such as exposed wiring, that can interfere with a worker's ability to leave the space without assistance.”

OSHA Revised 2015 Ruling

Prior to OSHA's 2015 revision, employers whose sites included confined spaces needed only to ensure that workers had been adequately trained. Companies basically followed the General Industry rule, which did not take into account the specific features and risks found on construction sites. The new ruling applies to any party engaged in construction, demolition or renovation.

The revised ruling has a few key features to consider:

  • Activities involving multiple employees at a worksite must ensure that potential dangers from outside the confined space will not harm those within it, such as a carbon monoxide build-up from an externally placed generator
  • Engulfment hazards, such as upstream water levels that could reach the confined space, must be continuously monitored
  • Permit suspensions for safety infractions or emergency evacuations have been made easier
  • Employers have been given more responsibility to protect their workers' health and safety
  • Competent persons are now required to assess the confined space and the nature of the work being carried out in it
  • Employers should engage in communication with local emergency services regarding the availability of emergency response teams
  • Workers must be trained in a language they understand (learn more in 5 Steps to Creating a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Workplace)

What Type of Training Is Required for Confined Spaces?

The general theme of confined space training is to give each worker the knowledge required to recognize the hazards of working in confined spaces, along with the ability to do the assigned work safely.

There is also an equally important requirement to train workers who act in a support role. That is, the workers who are not themselves in the confined space but will provide assistance or rescue services, including CPR, first aid, and physical rescue.

The training must not rely only on classroom instruction and guides, but also include a physical, hands-on component.

Key areas of training include:

  • How to identify hazards within and near the confined space
  • How to handle and control those hazards
  • Proper use life-saving equipment, including ventilation devices, harnesses, and air quality monitors
  • How to use respirators and protective equipment
  • Primary communications techniques and back-up communications
  • Safe entry procedures
  • Emergency evacuation procedures, as well as procedures that would remove the need for evacuation in the event of a hazard
  • How to perform the assigned work in the confined space
  • Correct exit procedures
  • Emergency rescue techniques

The Psychology of Confined Space Work

We all want our workers to be versatile, but it's important to acknowledge that not everyone is suited to work in close quarters. In addition to the physical dangers and limited space to work, there is potential for claustrophobia and disorientation. This psychological distress can affect even the most experienced confined space worker.

It is essential that the entire team be fully aware of the psychological implications of confined space work in order to maintain a level of calm and clear thinking. Being caught off-guard by these states of mind could lead to panic or accidental misuse of dangerous equipment.

As with all other areas of construction activity, workers have a right and obligation to stop work if they consider their work situation to be dangerous beyond the acceptable norms of the job (find out when workers have the right to refuse work).

Conclusion

Although no activity on a construction site can ever be considered risk free, confined space construction brings its own set of challenges that demand thorough education and training, not only at the outset but on a regular basis.