Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Are Trenches Regulated as Confined Spaces?

I teach a lot of excavation competent person training classes, and more times than not I get the following question: “Trenches and other excavations are permit-required confined spaces, right?”

While a trench or other excavation may seem to fit within the definition of a confined space per the Federal OSHA permit-required confined space entry standards, the answer is “No, trenches and other excavations are not regulated by OSHA as permit-required confined spaces." However, employers are still required to follow certain precautions spelled out in the OSHA excavation standard (Subpart P) that are similar to those required when we conduct work inside a permit-required confined space; we just don’t have to utilize a permit.

First of all, why do I say a trench or other excavation is not regulated as a permit-required confined space?  Because Federal OSHA . . .

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  1. Well written post on excavations. Too bad the Government can not write as clearly. - Gary

  2. I've argued this one 1000 times over at the nukes, where EVERYTHING has to be a CS in their minds. Thanks for posting. Wendy

  3. Exceptions: This subpart does not apply to ....

    These few words are crystal clear, yet many will cling to the notion that Excavations, Underground Construction, and Diving work activities are still considered to be covered under CSE standards in construction and make up what they believe OSHA really meant.

    They "moved our cheese" and many among us will struggle with this change ....

    Mark Wesley

  4. If a trench or excavation could have recognizable hazards that still require employers to follow certain precautions that are spelled out in OSHA 1926 (Subpart P)and that are similar to those required in a permit confined space but the only thing that is not required is the permit - what is your point??

    The permit is the documentation to show that you practiced due diligence and followed known and recommended guidelines to mitigate the hazard and help protect human life. There are times when a trench or excavation will meet every definition of a confined space and must be treated as such. Also if the trench or excavation is being performed on an operating general industry site the separation of 1910 and 1926 is not so clear as you have stated. Contractual language can also invalidate the supposition that a trench or excavation does not need to follow confined space guidelines. Why argue over protective standards that are to keep our team members safe and alive while at work? This is about human life, not the inconvenience of having to fill out another permit.

    1. Thank you for your question. One of the reasons I made this post to is to inform people what is required, not so they can scrape by on the minimum requirements, but to help them avoid being taken advantage of by a site safety rep who may be over-zealous or ignorant of the OSHA requirements. While some of the standards for confined space entry are similar to the excavation standards, there are many other requirements in the confined space standard that simply are not applicable nor helpful when working in a trench. Why make a contractor working in a simple excavation that has been evaluated by their competent person and has no potential for a hazardous atmosphere go through the process of checking the air with a monitor, providing a rescue team, filling out an unnecessary piece of paper (permit). . . ? Like I said in my post, if you want to exceed the rules, knock yourself out - just don't make someone else do it unnecessarily because it is "required by OSHA".

  5. Confined Spaces are Confined Spaces. Excavations/Trenches are Excavations/Trenches. Treating either one as the other keeps a lot of lawyers employed.... BUT, not following proper protocols and properly classifying what is what results in "body recovery" instead of "proper evacuation or rescue". GREAT SUMMARY of something that unfortunately confuses way to many people! - Jeff

  6. Had this same conversation at my recent 502 class. Seems counterintuitive to say trenches are not confined spaces but share many of the same precautions and that they may become confined spaces but taking the time to go through the regulations does clear it up. - Jim Schultz

  7. Thanks for the clarification. We currently treat excavations as permit-required confined spaces and will continue to do so. But, it is great to have a clear understanding of the OSHA's intent. Thank you.

  8. Curtis, I have had several hours training and workshops regarding the relatively new confined space in construction standard. The issue of trenches and excavations is typically addressed. That said, your article is very informative and well written, providing clarity and real-world examples that should be a must read for construction superintendents, field managers and construction safety professionals who are tasked with implementing this standard. Another great post. Please keep them coming. - Larry F.

  9. Fortunately it appears most of the responses above agree with the more conservative and cautionary CS regs when discussing excavation. That will help keep folks alive. How the gum'mint can appear to separate and ignore the obvious parallels and inherent dangers really baffles me.

    OSHA has published this ‘new’ regulation clarifying the difference between dying in a “Confined Space” or an “Excavation.” But, I submit, the victim is still going to be dead.

    The discussions about whether an excavation or trench is an “excavation,” covered by OSHA 1926.650-652 – the ‘excavation standard’ etcetera, or a “confined space,” covered by 1910.146 “Permit required confined spaces” and OSHA 1926.1201 – the confined space standard (as recently amended) is an argument in semantics. Sure, it’s now ‘clear’ that there is a definite difference between being in a ‘confined space’ and an ‘excavation/trench’ when your life comes to an end - but it will still end. It’s specious to not consider an excavation/trench as a confined space, to ‘rule it’ somehow as NOT a confined space when personnel are going ‘below grade’ when the walls collapse.

    Let’s be clear. The Confined Space standard includes in its definition and identification of hazards “1926.1201(b) Exceptions. This standard does not apply to: “(1) Construction work regulated by §1926 subpart P—Excavations...” But also includes §1926.1202 Definitions. Permit-required confined space (permit space) means a confined space that has one or more of the following characteristics: … (2) Contains a material that has the potential for engulfing an entrant; (3) Has an internal configuration such that an entrant could be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls or by a floor which slopes downward and tapers to a smaller cross-section;… (underline/italicized emphasis added) If an excavation/trench doesn’t meet that definition of (2) and (3) then you’re playing the Clintonesque game of “It depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”

    The speciousness of the argument that an excavation/trench does not meet the definition above flies in the face of common sense. Having a good, solid permit process to allow someone to enter a static (not dynamic)-but-hazardous-environment such as a tank or vault is great; it has saved lives. To fail to require that same level of accountability for the dynamic (hardly static)-and-hazardous-environment of an excavation/trench is insanity.

    As a more-than 35 year veteran of urban, interior-attack fire operations and command and, concurrently, a 40-plus year excavator I’ve had the hair stand up on the back of my neck a few times – in each job. I’ve lucked out in both with a few ‘close calls’ in each. But I know that the chances of getting killed were far higher – if, for no other reason than discipline of the scene – when I was excavating. And I got to participate in my share of rescues in each venue – but all from the fire-side where the discipline followed the confined space rules; the excavations were all free-for-all’s until the firefighters got there to organize the scene. Once the situation falls apart – be it a ditch cave-in, tank explosion, hazardous release or whatever, accountability for each person is key to rescue and survival; the excavation standards offer none of that, whereas the confined space rules do.

    The irony of the question: ‘Where do more people get killed every year – in permit-required confined spaces, or in excavations/trenches?’ punctuates the answer.

    Dan Tucker, CET, CHST (retired battalion chief)(excavator)


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