Working with OSHA's Confined Spaces Rule

HVAC professionals need to understand when the rule applies and what measures it requires.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) put its Confined Spaces in Construction rule into effect in August of 2015. The rule’s wording had many HVAC contractors worried that technicians servicing mechanical equipment in attics or crawlspaces would need to follow the same OSHA-mandated safety protocols required for utility workers in manholes.

Industry groups were also concerned. The one legal response came from the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), which filed a Petition for Review with the U.S. Court of Appeals challenging the standard on behalf of all trades that work on residential projects. Months of negotiation followed, and OSHA issued a clarification in May of 2016.

The gist of that clarification is that many of the requirements don't apply to the vast majority of residential work. At the same time, every employer on the job is legally responsible for knowing where they do apply and what procedures need to be followed. In other words, any HVAC contractor whose technicians might have to work in confined spaces needs to be familiar with these requirements.

OSHA defines a confined space as one that's not meant for continuous occupancy and that has limited entry and exit. While that definition applies to attics, crawlspaces and utility chases, the new rule doesn't necessarily apply to all such spaces. Even though chances are that someone entering a crawlspace to work on an air handler won't be affected, the employer is legally responsible for making sure that's the case.

The confined spaces OSHA is concerned with are those with potential hazards such as too little or too much oxygen, "flammable gasses and vapors, or other potentially toxic contaminants,” mechanical or other hazards. However, the rule is only triggered if those hazards could interfere with the worker's ability to get out of the space without help.

Of course this all sounds quite vague. How do you know whether the confined space rule applies? The answer is that someone trained to recognize such hazards, a "competent person" in OSHA-speak, must make the call. This usually involves the use of a handheld device such as a portable gas monitor or a CO detector. If the space is deemed hazardous, the employer (yes, the employer) must write a permit allowing employees to enter it. An attendant may also need to be posted just outside the entrance to help the worker get out if there's a problem.

The only employees allowed to enter a permit-required space are those who have completed confined space training. The employer must keep a record of that training, including the names of the employee and trainer and the dates of the training.

Should a permit be needed the standard also has differing requirements for general contractors and trade contractors. Even if the general contractor writes the permit, the trade contractor must ensure that workers follow the relevant protocols.

This split responsibility can muddy the waters when it comes to who is liable if someone gets hurt. "Determining that may be problematic if the GC isn't on the site to see who is going into the space," says Tressi L. Cordaro, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in Washington D.C., who represented NAHB in its negotiation with OSHA.

Although some news outlets have predicted that the new Trump administration will seek repeal of the rule, no one has announced a challenge. "At this point, we're happy with the rule as it stands," says Rob Matuga, NAHB's VP for Labor Safety and Health Policy.

That makes it wise for HVAC contractors to become familiar with this standard and to provide confined space training to their technicians. To this end, NAHB has published a page that includes a short summary, links to an OSHA Q&A and other official documents. Several companies also offer training for employers on confined space entry.

Confined spaces are all in a day’s work for most HVAC pros. Don’t be caught without the right testing instruments to make sure you’re safe.

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"Confined Spaces in Construction Toolkit." Accessed March 09, 2017.

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