Fairfax also examined two proposed scenarios to interpret OSHA’s confined spaces standard. The two scenarios, presented by ORCHSE members, are as follows:
Two weeks ago, personnel were reaching into a vessel installing hearer coils and the area was posted as a permit required confined space (PRCS). When the specific evolution was complete, the permit was removed, and the signage returned to the control room. No additional work has been performed and I do not know when work will resume. While walking through our site, the internal auditor asked the area manager why the Confined Space posting was not up as the vessel was still open. The area manager stated it was an oversight and asked me to intercede.
…The area manager stated it was an oversight and asked me to intercede.
We explained that no work was currently going on in/around the tank and the team would obviously re-evaluate the space, post, and develop a permit to control the work. We all agreed this was the correct approach. However, we differ in our opinions regarding the requirement to keep the vessel posted (even when no work is being performed and vessel is open). I explained that I believe it is a best management practice to maintain postings on open and identified spaces. However, I referenced 29 CFR 1910.146(c)(1) as it requires employers to “…evaluate the workplace to determine if any space(s) are permit-required confined spaces.” Once such spaces are identified, employees must be informed about the existence of the space(s) and hazards they pose. 29 CFR 1910.146(c)(2) does not require confined spaces to be posted continually, provided personnel are trained on recognizing confined spaces, and the location of confined spaces and hazards they present are described. Requirements change when the space is evaluated to support a specific task where personnel will make entry.
Unfortunately, OSHA, in trying to give an employer compliance options, has confused the issue. Under 29 CFR 1910.146(c)(2), the employer has two options on a PRCS. The first is to post the space as a PRCS with a danger warning. Most people I talk to have interpreted this to require that a sign always be posted regardless of whether the space is in use. This same standard then gives a second option: the employer can inform the employees by any other equally effective means, of the existence and location of a permit space as well as the danger it poses. (This section of the standard also has a note advising what the posted sign should state.)
The route you have gone makes this hard because it requires a lot of extra work and documentation on your part so you can explain and justify to an OSHA inspector that what you have in place is as effective as posting a sign. (For the record, I thought your actions seemed reasonable except I would want to keep the opening to the confined space closed unless there is an operation requiring entry.)
I would make sure you have all this covered in writing, so if a compliance officer asks you can provide written documentation on your procedure and process.
Other potential issues with your employee notification approach is that you would have to make sure that any new employees are trained and advised on the locations and types of PRCSs you have on site. This approach can be difficult, as I can tell you that most OSHA compliance officers are of the opinion that if it is a PRCS there must then be a sign posted. If you think you have it all covered through your training and procedures, and that employees know and understand what and where the confined spaces are, and that you can explain to an OSHA compliance officer why you are in compliance and do not need to actually post the space, then I believe you are good. I would make sure you have all this covered in writing, so if a compliance officer asks you can provide written documentation on your procedure and process. In my opinion, I would just keep the signage in place ‒ that way you know you have it covered and you are clearly in compliance, with no second guessing. And I would make sure that the opening closed off when not being used. I have done fatality investigations where the company left a PRCS opening open, there was no signage (this was prior to OSHA’s confined space standard), and someone, totally unexpectedly, climbed into it and died. Hence, I would add that, in my opinion, a continually posted sign is a better practice.
We have a melt tank that is primarily located below the ground. A small opening, roughly 18 inches in diameter, is kept open so workers can intermittently pour product into it when a bag is accidentally torn. The process of pouring material into the tank is covered by procedure and personnel do not breach the plane of the vessel. While it is a good idea to post it as a permanent confined space, it isn’t necessarily required, provided personnel understand it is a confined space, have received confined space recognition training, understand the hazards it poses, and know that they may not breach the vessel’s plane.
While you did not say in describing the scenario, I am assuming the 18-inch opening is either securely covered or has an adequate guard rail around it as would be required under OSHA’s Walking and Working Surfaces Standard since the opening is roughly at ground level. As to the signage issue, I would fall back on my response to the first scenario. I think it is easier and probably better to just post it as a PRCS. But if you believe you have it covered otherwise than as stated in the standard under (c)(2) you would be good.