Does a partial confined space entry need a permit?
One area of concern for many employers relates to the safety requirements needed when an employee reaches into a permit-required confined space to perform a low-hazard job task such as steam cleaning or collecting a sample. Does this partial confined space entry need a permit?
Has the employee made a confined space entry? Is a permit needed? What exactly are the requirements?
The OSHA regulations don't address this specific situation. The term 'entry' as defined in 29 CFR 1910.146 tells us that an entry is, "the action by which a person passes through an opening into a permit-required confined space." It goes on to state that, "entry includes ensuing work activities in that space and is considered to have occurred as soon as any part of the entrant’s body breaks the plane of an opening into the space."
So this definition implies that any breaking of the confined space plane by any part of the body constitutes an entry, and this is the concept that is reinforced in all our confined space classes. Specifically, attendants are prohibited from reaching into the space for any reason. However, when the worker only reaches into the space without the need to go in, the intent of the standard can be hard to assess.
When dealing with partial confined space entry from a safety standpoint we would need to identify hazards that would arise from reaching into the space. We would also need to look at the possible hazards of unintentional entry such as a worker slipping and accidently falling into a space. Based on this we would use the heirarchy of controls to control or eliminate the possible hazards.
Once we had managed the safety aspects we would address the compliance issues. These are addressed in OSHA's letter of interpretation dated October 18, 1995.
Essentially this letter looked at the size of the permit space opening and placed them into two categories: 1) openings that are large enough for the worker to enter the space and 2) those which are too small (e.g., inspection portals) for the employee to enter but large enough for the employee's arm to enter.
We'll look at each of these situations individually.
Case 1: A confined space opening that is large enough for the worker to enter.
When a worker breaks the plane in this case, then a permit is required, regardless of the intent to fully enter. The letter does state that if the act of reaching in does not expose the worker to hazards, then the violation would be considered de minimis. (A de minimis violation is one in which a standard is violated, but the violation has no direct or immediate relationship to employee safety or health. These violations are documented but no citations are issued.) Examples of these situations include:
1. An entrant reaches through the opening of a horizontal PRCS, which is so classified only because it contains exposed live electrical parts ten feet from the opening.
2. An entrant put his head through the opening of an overhead PRCS, which is so classified only because it contains unguarded rotating parts ten feet from the opening.
In either case the worker has committed a violation of the rules but was not exposed to a hazard, hence a de minimis situation.
Case 2: A confined space opening that is not large enough for the worker to enter.
If a worker reaches into a space that isn't large enough for the worker to enter, then OSHA says a permit is not required. Nonetheless, an employer is still obligated to identify and control any hazards associated with this activity.
One way that some employers have addressed workers reaching into spaces that are large enough to enter (Case 1) is by installing temporary grid or guards across an opening. These reduce the size of the opening so that it now no longer big enough for a worker to enter, but the worker can still reach in.
One might also assume that use of a fall or travel restraint system that prevents the worker from entering the space would also meet the intent of the standard. Reclassification of the space may also be a possibility.
In any case, the most important goal should be to protect the worker from hazards and then develop the procedures needed to make sure this happens. Once workers are trained to follow these procedures and the procedures are enforced, the likelihood of accidents related to partial confined space entry should no longer pose a concern.