What obligations does the host employer have when they hire a contractor to work within one of their Permit-Required Confined Spaces (PRCS)? The answer seems to be all over the map, depending on the industry where the space is located, the size of the company, the company’s written program, etc. This article is intended to help make sense of what should be happening when a contractor is hired to enter a PRCS on a host employer’s site. I am using 1910.146 and 1926.1201-.1213, as well as 1910.147, as my basis for my discussion.

First and foremost, let's discuss energy isolation for our PRCSs, as this single aspect of a contractor owning entry can be very difficult to satisfy. Even the simplest of spaces, the energy isolation could take a dozen or more locks and involve many different types and magnitudes of energy. The PRCS is “ours” - the host site owns it, they operate it - it is their's. And as such, the host site should have “authorized employees” who are capable of properly isolating the PRCS. In contrast, a contractor who will be entering this space, in many cases will have never even seen the space before entering; much less understand the different types and magnitudes of energy associated with the space or the means to isolate this energy properly. To me this makes it clear that the host facility MUST isolate the space properly using one of the three (3) approved means:

1) blanking or blinding

2) misaligning or removing sections of lines, pipes, or ducts

3) double block and bleed system

As well as traditional “lockout” for mechanical type equipment such as agitators, augers, etc.

Expecting a “contractor” to have the knowledge, skills, and equipment to isolate a PRCS they may have never even seen before is asking a lot in my opinion.

This does not mean that we do not have the expectation that the contractor entrants not be “authorized employees” under our “group lockout program”; but placing a personal lock on a lockbox provided by the host is a far cry from expecting a contractor to:

1) Identify the forms of hazardous energy needing isolating for entry into the space

2) Identify the magnitude of said energy sources

3) Identify the isolation means to be used on each energy source, and

4) Establish the means to verify that each isolation means was successful in achieving ZES.

I think most safety professionals can admit this is a lot to ask of a contractor who has possibly just walked up to the PRCS for the first time in their lives! I will admit that there may be some latitude in regards to a “nested contractor”; but even these situations should be handled on a case-by-case basis because even some nested contractors may have weaknesses in their PRCS practices!

Now once we have properly isolated the space, the door opens up as to what we can ask the contractor to be responsible for; like being the “permitting authority” (with the host’s help in walking down the isolation).

Some companies even place the responsibility of atmospheric testing on the contractor; however, this also can pose a significant challenge - UNLESS the contractor is told well in advance of what vapors/gases may be present in the space and what they MUST have the ability to monitor for. What I mean by this is that the contractor arrives with their "off-the-shelf" 4-gas meter and unfortunately two of the gases that may be present in the space are NOT two of the sensors present on their 4-gas meter. We learned through trials and tribulations that it was BEST for the host site to own the atmospheric monitoring; especially when we consider they are “our” gases/vapors. This is not to say that the contractor’s work could generate a whole host of new gases/vapors; yet another reason to own the permitting and communications! I also worry about the care and proper use of the contractors direct-reading instruments. Bump testing and calibration are ABSOLUTELY critical paths in safety for these instruments and yet it seems far to easy to find contractor instruments that are not calibrated or bump tested per manufacturer’s requirements. I like to make the argument that using a direct-reading instrument improperly is more dangerous than not using one at all (e.g. flash sense of safety when the meter is not functioning properly). I have also seen far too many times in field audits where the contractor is entering a 30’ deep vessel and yet has only 10’ of sample tubing; a clear indication that “air monitoring” was a “check-the-box” approach!

The last, and certainly not the least, issue with allowing the contractor to be the permitting authority resides in:

1910.146(j)(4) Verifies that rescue services are available and that the means for summoning them are operable; and

or

1926.1210(d) Verifies that rescue services are available and that the means for summoning them are operable, and that the employer will be notified as soon as the services become unavailable;

If the host facility has it’s own rescue service this task can maybe be done by a contractor entry supervisor, but there may be issues even with a contractor “supervising” the host’s rescue team.

If the host facility relies on an external rescue service, having an out-of-town contractor arrange for their own rescue service could be challenging. Unfortunately what we tend to find is that it just is not done properly (i.e. the 911 Rescue Plan). Many times we see the host facility require the contractor to provide their own rescue and they will point to their “contract language” as the means to defend themselves should something go wrong; however, that does not do much for the entrants' safety!

I have seen too many times how the contractor meets their rescue obligations and more often than not it is not pretty! So to be done in the safest possible manner, the host should have an established relationship with their off-site (or on-site) rescue service and the means to verify they are available should already be in place. We could, of course, tell the contractor entry supervisor how to make this phone/radio call OR we could do it for them. And by all means, if the contractor states they have made their own arrangements, it would be a good idea for us to work with them and verify the rescue service they have contracted with actually has the staff, equipment, and training to effect a rescue from the space. Remember, both 1910.146(k)(1) and 1926.1211(a) have some specific evaluation requirements that imply the person doing the evaluation knows about the PRCS location, configuration, entry portal that will be used, the hazards that could be faced during a rescue, etc. Telling a contractor they are responsible for hiring a rescue firm BEFORE they even see the space tells me that the evaluation could not have been done properly. Of course, if the host tells the contractor all of the info about the space they will be entering then the contractor could do the evaluation properly - but lets be real, how many times does this actually occur!

Bottom line, it is my opinion that the owner of the PRCS (i.e. the host site) should be the responsible party for preparing the space and controlling the work taking place within the space. In all my 25+ years working with PRCS and contractor entrants, I have rarely found an entry on a host site that was managed 100% by the contractor as being done correctly. This is NOT saying that contractors can not do entries into PRCS properly; what I am saying is that for a contractor to enter a PRCS properly they MUST have advanced knowledge of the space (and process the PRCS is associated with) in order to enter it safely. This is a lot of information and a lot of expectations that many contractors would not be able to meet in order to enter the space safely. We have to work with our contractors to make the entry as safe as possible, regardless of who’s employees are entering the space. Just wiping our hands of any role and putting all the responsibility on the contractor to enter the PRCS safely is setting up both the host and the contractor for a serious failure with significant consequences.

 
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