The Hazards of Working in Confined Spaces

Jun 20, 2015

The dangers lurking in some confined spaces are more often times invisible and undetectable by humans (whether by sight, smell, feel or taste).  And, unfortunately, just because you cannot see, smell, or taste it (it being the chemical hazards), doesn't mean that the danger does not exist.  Depending on the type of confined space and what it is used for, as well as the specific industry, there could be several “invisible” atmospheric hazards that, if not properly identified, assessed and controlled, could lead to serious injury, illness or even death.

The unfortunate reality is that many Employers (and by rights, workers) do not fully understand the hazards and risks that are “hidden” in their confined spaces, until actual entry and work needs to be performed in them. Worse, many Employers “assume” that there are no problems, and do not have qualified professionals identify those issues that could harm their workers.

Anticipating, Recognizing, Identifying and Assessing Confined Space Dangers

The first critical step is to engage a very qualified and highly educated/trained professional who is well experienced in confined spaces to identify and assess for potential hazards and risks. This is basic logic as how can one prevent and control a hazard if that hazard has not been identified yet? As previously stated, there could be several hazardous contaminants in a confined space atmosphere. Some substances are toxic to human health, corrosive, reactive, hot or cold, or flammable and combustible. Other atmospheric issues that can cause serious injury or death include low oxygen levels.  Humans need oxygen to live, breathe and function. Without proper levels of oxygen, we can die. And, in fact, low levels of oxygen account for almost 50% of all confined space fatalities.

It’s Not Just the Atmosphere…

Many people also wrongly assume that confined spaces are dangerous only because of the toxicity of the air (or “air quality”).  However, this is not the case in many confined spaces.  It is very important for a qualified person to also consider other hazards and risks that could harm an individual during work inside.  These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Mechanical or electrical hazards.
  • Engulfment (and immersion hazards), by solid or liquid materials.
  • Entrapment (getting “stuck” in a smaller cross sectional area of the space).
  • Slips, trips and falls.
  • Confinement issues (small, tight, narrow, restrictive areas inside the space).
  • Sharp edges or protrusions.
  • Conveyances (into the space) of hazardous materials (whether solid, liquid or gases/vapours) etc.

What is Required by Law and What Safety Measures are Needed?

Most, if not all, governmental jurisdictions in the developed world have safety regulations that govern safe work inside confined spaces. In general, confined space regulations require that:

  • A highly qualified Qualified Person must perform space-specific confined space hazard/risk assessments, and prepare written assessment and safe work procedure documentation.
  • Proper and specific equipment, tools, materials, protective equipment and control measures are selected and implemented, as specified in each procedure.
  • All involved workers are specifically and appropriately educated, trained and instructed in confined space hazards/risks, required controls measures, equipment and their specific duties.
  • A “man or safety watch” (person) is assigned and present at the confined space to monitor the well-being of workers inside.
  • A qualified, trained, competent and equipped Rescue Team (whether internal or external) is present at the specific space during confined space entry and work.
  • A qualified person retained to develop confined space rescue procedures where an internal rescue team is utilized.
  • The rescue team members are highly trained and properly equipped with rescue equipment, to effect extrication's in a timely manner.

Only after the above safety requirements are implemented can workers enter into, and perform work in a confined space. These aspects must also be defined in a comprehensive Confined Space Program that details the Employer’s confined space safety commitments and policies.  By implementing these safety and control measures Employers can ensure the health, safety and well being of workers who need to conduct work in confined spaces.

About Craig Yee - Occupational Health and Safety Consultant in Vancouver

Craig Yee is an Industrial Hygienist and Principal of OHS Global Risk Solutions. He earned his Masters Degree in Occupational and Environmental Hygiene at the University of British Columbia. He has over 12 years of direct experience in the hygiene, health and safety industry in both public and private sectors. You can connect with him on Google+.

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