Employers Remain Confused about Which Confined Space Standard to Follow

It’s not always obvious when to use the general industry vs. the construction standard.

Working in a confined space poses inherent dangers, and OSHA regulations are designed to ensure that employers take effective steps to mitigate or eliminate them.

OSHA introduced its confined space regulations for general industry (Standard 1910.146) back in 1993. It didn’t really work well for construction projects. So, in 2015, OSHA introduced more stringent regulations designed for the construction industry, the Confined Spaces in Construction standard (29 CFR 1926 Subpart AA).

Ever since, there’s been some misunderstanding around the newer standard and when it applies. Below are two main points of confusion.

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“Construction” doesn’t just mean building

“The original standard was intended for companies involved in heavy industry, whose employees would be going into places like boilers, grain elevators, crawl spaces and air conditioner ducts,” said Bruce Magee, region product development manager with United Rentals Trench Safety.

The newer standard is intended for companies in the construction industry — but construction work doesn’t always take place in a construction setting. The newer standard must be followed even when construction work is occurring in other settings, such as an industrial plant, for example.

“People who work in industry might say, ‘This is for people who build houses, and I’m industry.’ But that’s not the case,” Magee said.

Is it construction, or maintenance?

OSHA makes a distinction between construction and maintenance activities. Contractors doing construction work should follow 1926 AA. Those performing maintenance tasks can follow 1910.146. The trick is determining which category is appropriate for a given job.

In a letter clarifying the difference between maintenance and construction activities, OSHA defined construction work as “construction, alteration and/or repair, including painting and decorating.” It defined maintenance as “keeping equipment working in its existing state, i.e., preventing its failure or decline.”

Magee explained the distinction with this analogy. “Suppose we’re working in a confined space, and I pull out of that space a wooden #2 pencil with a broken point. If I replace that pencil with another #2 wooden pencil with a sharp point, that’s a maintenance project. But if I put in a new #2 mechanical pencil, OSHA calls that construction. The new pencil is similar in function but improved in technology,” he said.

There’s another wrinkle. If a maintenance project requires contractors to perform complex, large-scale work, OSHA considers it construction. If any of that work is being done in a confined space, Standard 1926 AA would apply.

During a recent project to replace steel beams at a hospital in Louisiana, a contractor discovered that many of the steel beams in the structure didn’t have the required fireproofing coating.

“The contractor opened up parts of the hospital, cut off the beams that were bad, welded new beams in there and sealed it all up,” said Magee. “Although they were pulling one thing out and replacing it with a like item, OSHA would consider it construction because of the complexity or the degree of difficulty of the task.”

To help clear up confusion about the Confined Space in Construction standard and when it applies, OSHA has created an FAQ page.

Still confused? Contact the trench safety team at United Rentals for trench and excavation questions, or check out the Confined Spaces in Construction courses at United Academy.


Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.