Confined Spaces - Know the Dangers

According to OSHA, about 90 workers die in confined space accidents every year. Many of these tragedies are preventable. But unfortunately, workers and employers often simply do not understand what confined spaces are or how to identify the dangers that lurk inside them.

That is why it’s important to have an open and frank discussion about confined space safety. We owe it to the workers who put themselves at risk every day in these challenging spaces.

Defining Confined Spaces

Workers and employers will never be able to implement proper safety measures if they can’t even identify a confined space to begin with. OSHA defines confined spaces as those with the following characteristics:

  • Is large enough for an employee to enter fully and perform assigned work

  • Is not designed for continuous occupancy by the employee

  • Has a limited or restricted means of entry or exit

That includes, of course, tight spots like manholes and ductwork. But it also includes more spacious locations that might not immediately seem like candidates for a confined space, such as pits, tunnels, and silos.

 

Some spaces require employers to obtain permits prior to workers entering. These are known as permit-required confined spaces and they have one or more of the following attributes:

  • Contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere

  • Contains material that has the potential to engulf an entrant

  • Has walls that converge inward or floors that slope downward and taper into a smaller area that could trap or asphyxiate an entrant

  • Contains any other recognized safety or health hazard, such as unguarded machinery, exposed live wires, or heat stress

To find out whether a space requires a permit, it’s best to check your local and state regulations.

Confined Space Dangers

Each confined space is unique, so workers must address the particular risks posed by the space they are working in.

In general, the hazards found in confined spaces may include:

  • Poor air quality, including insufficient oxygen or poisonous substances

  • Chemical exposure due to skin contact, ingestion, or inhalation of contaminated air

  • Fire hazards

  • Noise

  • Safety hazards including moving equipment parts, structural hazards, entanglement, slips, and falls

  • Radiation

  • Temperature extremes

  • Shifting or collapsing materials

  • Flooding

  • Electrical shock

  • Low visibility

Gas Detection For Confined Space

One of the most common and perilous confined space hazards is often odorless and invisible: gas. It doesn’t take much to suffocate or poison a worker or to combust and cause an explosion.

Since some gases can’t be seen or smelled, testing the atmosphere prior to entry is essential. Ideally, confined spaces should be continuously monitored to ensure the atmosphere remains safe for those inside. Of course, this isn’t always possible. At a minimum, you should test the space before entry and at regular interval while workers are inside.

Communicating in Confined Spaces

Given the sometimes-isolated nature of confined space work, it’s important to have a communication plan before sending any workers in. Planning should account for communication:

  • Between those within the confined space

  • Between those in the confined space and those outside of it

  • With emergency services

Those responsible for choosing the means of communications must consider all anticipated conditions inside the confined space. This might include reduced visibility, loud noises, and PPE that might be obstruct use of normal devices (such as earmuffs or respirators).

Potential communication systems include two-way radios, hard-line intercom systems, and wearable technology. No matter what system you decide on, it’s important that messages can be communicated easily, quickly, and unambiguously between the relevant people.

Confined Space: Protection Through Planning

Since employers have an OSHA-mandated responsibility to protect workers from known safety hazards, any company with workers in confined spaces must have a confined space safety program in place.

An effective program should include the following components:

  • An assignment of worker responsibilities

  • A list of each confined space, with a written hazard assessment for each

  • Written work procedures for safe entry into and work inside each of the confined spaces that specifically address the hazards posed by each space

  • Equipment necessary for each entry, including testing devices, air-moving devices, isolation and lockout devices, and personal protective equipment

  • A signed permit, where required

  • Comprehensive and ongoing employee training

  • A written and rehearsed rescue plan

Everyone involved in confined space work – be it supervising, planning, implementing the safe work system, or participating rescues – should be capable of carrying out their roles without compromising their own safety or that of others. Training is a great way to help people learn their roles and practice using realistic scenarios. This is especially important when it comes to rescue procedures, as one study concluded that approximately 40 percent of confined space fatalities involve would-be rescuers.

Workers should participate fully in training sessions. They need to understand and be able to properly use the equipment provided, including safety harnesses, respiratory protective equipment, and reflective clothing. They must also be made aware of the hazards they will face and of their right to refuse unsafe work.

Supervisors and other company leaders are responsible for ensuring that confined space safety protocols are observed at all times. It’s a good idea to have regular audits to confirm that the procedures are being followed.

Conclusion

Developments in the field of occupational health and safety are ongoing. As our understanding of the unique challenges and risks of confined spaces develops, so too does our ability to address them.

Employers must never forget that the health and safety of their workers is their highest priority. Productivity and performance must come second to ensuring a safe work environment for everyone.

24 avril 2019
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