Do you ever work in a confined space? There are many types of confined spaces – tanks, silos, pits, tunnels, pipes, boilers, sewer manholes, trenches, etc. No matter what the type, confined spaces have something in common. They have limited ways to get in and out, and the atmosphere within them could be dangerous.
A confined space has three characteristics: 1) It has limited openings for entry and exit, 2) it is large enough to permit a worker to enter, and 3) it is not designed for continuous worker occupancy. The characteristics of a confined space cause it to present unique hazards. Early miners knew some of the dangers of a confined space. Have you ever heard about the canary that died? Miners took a bird into the mine. When the bird died, the miners knew the atmosphere in the mine was getting dangerous. The death of the canary told miners it was time to leave. Today we have more sophisticated ways of testing the atmosphere in confined spaces, but the principle is the same. Check the atmosphere to make sure it is safe to work in before you enter a confined space.
Confined spaces present many dangers – some of which the miners of yesteryear never knew. Here are some common confined space hazards:
Lack of oxygen, presenting a suffocation hazard
Fire or explosion hazards from an accumulation of flammable vapors
Health hazards from toxic vapors
Difficulty exiting the space in the event of an emergency
Cramped spaces to work in, resulting in a danger of being caught in/on equipment
High levels of noise
Regulatory agencies require workplaces to have a plan for working in confined spaces safely. If you work in a confined space, you should know your municipality’s procedures for safely entering the space and working in it. Confined spaces should be identified and classified, and safe entry procedures developed. Some confined spaces are called “permit-required confined spaces,” meaning a permit is required for entry into the confined space. In addition to the normal characteristics of a confined space, permit-required spaces present one or more of these hazards:
Has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere
Could contain material capable of engulfing someone entering the space
Has an internal configuration such that a person could be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls or by a floor which slopes downward and tapers off to a smaller cross-section (i.e. grain elevator)
Contains any other recognized serious hazard
In general, these are the things you should be aware of before you enter a confined space:
Know how to enter it safely
Know how to exit quickly
Know that the atmosphere in the space is tested and found to be free of dangerous levels of toxic or flammable vapors, and that there is sufficient oxygen
Know that the atmosphere within the space is going to remain safe while you are working
Know the rescue plan in the event of an emergency, and make sure the proper rescue equipment is available and in good condition
Know that another person outside the confined space is keeping an eye on you as you work, and that they know the rescue plan also
Know what other procedures are necessary to follow to work safely, such as locking out energy sources
Another very important thing to remember is what to do if someone working in a confined space becomes ill or injured. In the event of such an emergency, you should never enter a confined space to rescue someone without the proper equipment, training, and atmospheric testing. Chances are, whatever caused the illness or injury will get you too! Many confined space accidents claim the lives of multiple victims because the initial ill or injured person is a friend and co-worker. People often react to the situation with poor judgment - they just see their friend is in need and jump in to help them without thinking about the danger to themselves. The next thing you know they succumb to the hazard.
It is possible to work safely in confined spaces, but it is a task that requires careful planning and preparation. Don’t be tempted to take shortcuts when it comes to confined spaces. Follow all safety precautions and don’t hesitate to speak up if you are unsure of the correct procedures. You play the most important role of all when it comes to working safely. By consistently following safe work procedures and not taking chances, you will be working safely for a long time to come.
The dangers of confined space work have been written about since Roman times, when the Emperor Trajan was noted to have sentenced criminals to clean sewers, an occupation considered one of the worst. Working conditions have improved vastly since Trajan’s time, but the same hazards persist and result in workplace injuries and fatalities each year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics nearly 100 work fatalities occur in permit-required confined spaces. In addition, for every victim who dies in a confined space, 3 would-be rescuers lose their lives trying to rescue a victim.
Even though you’ve met all the requirements for a safe confined space entry: you have an attendant, an entrant, and a supervisor, you have the space clearly marked and protected as a confined space, you are monitoring atmospheric conditions, you’ve made sure the entrant has a harness, tripod, tag-line and winch in place, and you have a correctly completed confined space entry permit, you aren’t done. The only requirement remaining is completion of the rescue plan. Most municipalities usually complete the rescue plan by writing “CALL 9-1-1.” That is not sufficient.
Relying solely on 9-1-1 as your means of emergency rescue is essentially planning for a body recovery, not a rescue. To prevent injuries and fatalities, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) requires a specific plan of operation for confined space rescue. These operations must be established by the employer (municipality)¹. If 9-1-1 is part of your emergency plan, the employer is to, among other things, do the following:
Evaluate the emergency responder’s ability to respond in a timely fashion
OSHA expects emergency care to be administered to the victim in 3-4 mins²
Ensure the responder has the equipment and training to enter the specific confined space you are working in
Even though you are in a small community and the fire station is just around the corner, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your local firefighters have the training and equipment to respond to a confined space rescue
Ensure the responder is proficient in performing the needed rescue services
OSHA standards require that the owner of the confined space ensure that the emergency responders are proficient at conducting rescues from the specific types of spaces
OSHA lists 24 types of confined spaces depending on the size of the opening, shape of the opening, and location with respect to the space
The OSHA term “Proficient” means the employer has certified the responder as being proficient in conducting rescues from the specific type of confined space encountered
Municipalities, like private employers, have two options when considering permit-required confined space rescue, since for most, “9-1-1” is not a viable option for emergency confined space response and rescue operations.
Train your employees to conduct permit-required confined space rescue operations and provide medical assistance, or
Hire a third-party Rescue and Response company to provide those services for your municipality.
¹OSHA Confined Space Regulations for General Industry: 1910.146(k)(1) – 1910.146(l)(2)
²OSHA Confined Space Regulations for Construction 29 CFR 1926.1211(a) – 1926.1211(d)
Learning from practical, real-world experience often requires learning from our own mistakes. In many cases, this can be an effective way of developing greater levels of competence and understanding in a given subject. Unfortunately, when mistakes are made in confined space monitoring, the cost of this education if often measured in the number of lives lost (see 2016 Falls Creek Baptist Assembly Wastewater stories on the internet - KP).
The deadly nature of confined spaces leaves little room for error and even less opportunity to “learn as you go”. Learning about some common mistakes before entering a confined space will go a long way toward establishing a workplace air monitoring program based on industry best practices. (If your municipality does not have a gas monitoring detector and calibration kit and you can’t afford one, look into OMAG’s Public Works Safety Enhancement Grant Program on our website www.omag.org/getfreestuff -KP).
Mistake #1 – Not knowing OSHA standards and recommendations