Respect the dangers that exist in confined spaces and plan accordingly
Each year, about 100 workers in the U.S. die in confined-space incidents.
The sad fact is that most of those workers were never properly trained, and, as a result, did not appreciate the dangers that are a regular part of confined spaces. Maybe they did not recognize a particular space as “confined.” Or they trusted their senses. Or maybe they simply underestimated the dangers. They didn’t stay on guard, or, as is often the case, they attempted to rescue others.
The good news is that work in confined spaces can be done safely if you follow five relatively simple steps.
Step 1 - Identify the spaces
OSHA defines a confined space as:
- Large enough to enter
- Limited or restricted means for entry
- Not designed for continuous worker occupancy.
Specific examples cited in the standards include, but are not limited to, manholes, pipelines, culverts, underground utility vaults, lift stations, storage tanks, tunnels, septic tanks, and pits more than 4 feet deep. It is important to remember that every space is unique, and each requires careful evaluation.
Step 2 - Develop a plan
Why develop a plan? There are several excellent reasons, of course, but one of the most important is this: It’s the law.
Topics that may need to be part of your plan include:
- Steps taken to prevent unauthorized entry
- Communications and coordination with other employers at the site
- Identification and evaluation of all hazards
- Development of the means, procedures and practices necessary for safe entry
- Plans for providing, maintaining and ensuring proper use of safety equipment
- Continual evaluation of the space while entry operations are underway
- Providing an attendant outside the space
- Designating the person who will have an active role in entry operations (the entry supervisor)
- Developing a system for using entry permits
- An emergency rescue plan
Step 3 - Train your people
OSHA makes it very clear: All employees must be properly trained to safely do their jobs.
Each year, a significant number of confined-space fatalities are would-be rescuers. Even if employees will not be working in confined spaces, it is important that they are trained in the potential dangers of entering a confined space and attempting a rescue.
Specific training may be required for:
- Competent person
- Entry supervisor
- Atmospheric monitoring personnel (see Step 4)
- Rescue team (see Step 5)
Step 4 - Identify and eliminate all hazards
There are three broad categories of confined-space hazards:
It’s important to identify all potential hazards, and then eliminate each one. If elimination is not possible, steps must be taken to control the hazard and ensure worker safety.
Atmospheric hazards include too little oxygen (oxygen deficiency), too much oxygen (oxygen enriched), flammable gases or vapors (examples are methane and natural gas), or toxic substances (examples are hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide).
Physical hazards include engulfment, falling or tripping, poor visibility, noise, temperature extremes, biological hazards, energy sources, insects, rodents and reptiles.
Psychological hazards include claustrophobia, fear of heights, fear of darkness, or poor physical condition or restrictions of the worker. Even a mild level of claustrophobia or fear of heights can be problematic. There is not a lot one can do for psychological hazards except not put affected workers into spaces that cause them such problems.
Step 5 - Develop a rescue plan
OSHA mandates that employers provide appropriate rescue and emergency services so that retrieval of injured entrants is not delayed. Non-entry retrieval systems, such as tripods, anklets and wristlets, are the preferred methods of rescue. The reason is simple: No one has to go into the hazardous space to make the rescue.
If non-entry retrieval systems will not work, a rescue team may be required. The rescue team must be properly trained, and have all the appropriate equipment to safely enter a confined space and retrieve injured entrants.
By applying these five relatively simple steps, you and your crews can work safely in and around confined spaces.
About the author
David Dow is co-founder of TrenchSafety and Supply — now part of Underground Safety Equipment LLC — which supplies excavation safety products and services to construction, excavation and utility companies. From its facilities in Kansas City, Missouri; Lafayette, Colorado; Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; North Little Rock, Arkansas; Salt Lake City, Utah; and San Antonio, Texas; Underground Safety Equipment provides sales, rental equipment, repair service and safety training. Dow is also chair of the Training Committee for the North American Excavation Shoring Association (NAXSA).