Far too many employees die needlessly while working in confined spaces. Many of these fatalities occur because employers lack information about the potential dangers their employees might encounter. However, understanding the safety issues particular to these workers can help reduce this risk.
OSHA defines a confined working space as one that “hinder[s] the activities of the employees who must enter, work in and exit them. A confined space has limited means for entry or exit, and is not designed for continuous employee occupation.”
OSHA also distinguishes a ‘permit-required confined space’ as one that has the following elements:
- Contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere,
- Contains a material that has the potential for engulfing the entrant,
- Has an internal configuration that might cause an entrant to become trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls or by a floor that slopes downward and tapers to a smaller cross section, and/or
- Contains any other recognized serious safety or health hazard such as unguarded machinery, exposed live wires or heat stress.
Obvious types of confined spaces include but are not restricted to manholes, storage bins, tanks, underground vaults, pits, silos, process vessels and pipelines. A confined space can also be considered something normally deemed as benign but that can also be as deadly, such as an attic or crawlspace.
Before assigning a worker to a job in a confined space, employers should consider whether the employee might be exposed to the following potential hazards:
- High pressure fluids and gases, especially inert gases
- Chance of falling, being crushed or buried
- Biological hazards such as mold, spores, viral agents, or decay of organic materials
- Exposure to the generation of harmful or flammable fumes when welding
- Air contamination or oxygen deficiency caused by corrosion of metal or other chemical reaction
- Potential leaks, spills or release of hazardous materials
- Possibility of drowning
Employers should always familiarize themselves with the layout of a confined space and any potential hazard employees might encounter. Likewise, work crews should be thoroughly trained how to properly access these potential hazards before beginning work in any confined space.
Some workers will need specialized training and appropriate safety equipment. The situation might require frequent monitoring and supervision. More extreme situations will necessitate that you have a back up rescue plan, trained personnel who understand the risk issues involved for each individual location and appropriate and/or readily available safety equipment.
As crews gain experience with their work locale, they can also fine tune the procedures to suit the individual circumstances of each confined space situation.
By following these simple steps, employers can ensure the protection of their workers and, in the process, minimize the number of confined space injuries and fatalities.