I recently participated in conducting an OSHA 5810 course for a dozen or so oil and gas attendees from both Operator Companies, as well as, Service Companies in the oil and gas industry.  Most of the class attendees held safety and health supervisory duties for their respective companies.  One of the many topics that we covered during the course was recognition of hazards associated with permit required confined spaces.

My first surprise of that day was the number of attendees who were not familiar with what constituted a confined space according to OSHA’s definition.  The second surprise was that some attendees were under the impression that ISNetworld could give them an Exemption/Variance from having to follow confined space requirements for work performed on oil and gas sites.

Unfortunately, ISNetworld holds no legal authority over what is or is not a confined space.  Even if the Host Employer has granted an Exemption/Variance for needing to “upload” a confined space program to satisfy their ISNetworld requirements, this does not remove the service company’s responsibility under OSHA to recognize and properly address confined space hazards if they participate in this type of work.  This includes having a proper written program, safe entry procedures, and all of the equipment, training and rescue capabilities that are in compliance with 29 CFR 1910.146.

The OSHA definition of a confined space is as follows:

A confined space:  Is large enough for an employee to enter fully and perform assigned work; Is not designed for continuous occupancy by the employee; and Has a limited or restricted means of entry or exit.  These spaces may include underground vaults, tanks, storage bins, pits and diked areas, vessels, silos and other similar areas.  By definition, a permit-required confined space has one or more of these characteristics:  Contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere; Contains a material with the potential to engulf someone who enters the space; Has an internal configuration that might cause an entrant to be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls or by a floor that slopes downward and tapers to a smaller cross section; and/or Contains any other recognized serious safety or health hazards.

A case study that was reviewed as part of the OSHA 5810 course illustrated why the well cellar, an often overlooked space, is a permit required confined space.

Three oil field workers died after breathing carbon monoxide (CO) gas in an oil well cellar.

The incident occurred during perforation, a procedure to create holes in the pipe in the well to allow the well to be used for water disposal. During the procedure, water began flowing from a valve in the well cellar.   No plan had been prepared for actions by the workers in the event that this occurred. The first worker (decedent #1), a 22 year-old male, entered the well cellar to turn off the valve.  Upon entering the area, he collapsed and fell into the cellar. A second worker (decedent #2), a 24 year-old male entered the cellar to assist decedent #1 but was also overcome and collapsed.  A third worker (decedent #3), a 26-year-old male, was overcome while kneeling near the opening to the cellar and also fell in.

A lack of understanding and appropriate respect for the potential dangers associated with Confined Space Work still exists in many industries.  Host employers and contractors often fail to comply with one or more provisions of OSHA’s permit required confined space standard. Hosts often fail to exercise their authority over contractors or, even worse, ignored situations where a contractor demonstrates egregious at-risk behavior.

Many contractors lack an understanding of the complex nature of confined space hazards or demonstrate a conscious indifference toward the safety of their employees. Few possess sufficient experience, technical knowledge or skill necessary to manage a confined spaces program.

Hosts and contractors must provide for each other’s safety. This duty is overlapping and interlocking, because the host and their contractors are not only obligated to share specific information about confined space issues, but also must coordinate entry operations so that they don’t kill each other. The specific obligations of hosts and contractors are described respectively in 29 CFR 1910.146(c)(8) and (c)(9).

Host Employer Duties

Careful reading of 29 CFR 1910.146(c)(8) shows that host employers have six principal duties.

Advise of permit spaces. Hosts must advise contractors of any permit spaces on the host’s premises that the contractor’s employees may have reason to enter. Hosts need to be adequately familiar with what is or is not a (permit required) confined space based upon the OSHA definition as well as the 80+ letters of interpretation that has been issued by OSHA since the confined space regulation was published in 1993.

Compel compliance. Hosts must compel compliance by informing contractors that permit spaces can only be entered under the auspices of a written program that meets the requirements of 29 CFR 1910.146(d). As explained above, the host and contractor must also agree as to exactly what program will be followed.

Inform of hazards. The host is arguably the most knowledgeable person with respect to many aspects of the space. For example, it is reasonable to expect the host to know things like how the space is used, how often it is used, what it last contained, its volume and its dimensions. The host would also be likely to have access to piping and instrumentation drawings, material safety data sheets for substances found in the space and other similar safety-related information. Consequently, hosts are obligated to inform contractors of their previous experience with the space and of any hazards that make the space a permit space.

Inform of precautions. Hosts must also inform contractors of any entry precautions that have been implemented such as draining, flushing and rinsing a space; isolating the space by disconnecting lines, blanking or providing a double block-and-bleed system; locking out mechanical equipment; flagging or barricading the work area; de-energizing electrical equipment; providing temporary lighting; purging and ventilating the space; and performing initial atmospheric testing.

Coordinate entry. Hosts must coordinate operations with the contractor when host and contractor employees will be working in or near permit spaces.

Conduct debriefing. At the conclusion of the entry, the contractor must debrief the host regarding the permit program and any hazards confronted in the space during entry operations.

Contractor’s Duties

In addition to complying with all of the other requirements governing confined space entry, contractors must:

  • Obtain any available information regarding permit space hazards and entry operations from the host;
  • Inform the host of the provisions of the contractor’s written permit program if it is agreed that the contractor’s program will be followed rather than the host’s;
  • Coordinate entry operations when the host’s and the contractor’s employees will be working in or near permit spaces; and
  • Report hazards confronted or created during the entry to the host, either at the debriefing session or when they occur.

OSHA’s goal, as explained in the standard’s preamble, is to provide all employers with the flexibility they need to effectively manage their confined space entries. Hosts and contractors, however, must cooperate with each other to identify and implement a permit program that best suits their specific needs.

Although the final rule provides for this flexibility, hosts have ultimate control over their workplaces and should employ specific administrative procedures to ensure that contractors comply with the regulations. While there are many things a host can do to evaluate its contractor’s performance, three of the more important considerations are  Program review, Verify training proficiency, Monitor contractor activities.  This may mean going beyond the capabilities of a computer based contractor monitoring service.  Host employers might benefit from actually conducting their own audits of their contractors.

Host employers and contractors who work in or around confined spaces have overlapping and interlocking responsibilities toward each other. Each must communicate information concerning confined space entry operations to the other, each must consider and evaluate confined space hazards, and each must take an active role in controlling those hazards.

Failure to strictly abide by the contractor provisions outlined in the OSHA confined space standard may not only lead to employees being maimed, injured or killed, but also may result in a costly litigation for both companies.