Working in a confined space has been part of the job description for workers in a large variety of industries, from construction and city development to agriculture, aerospace, marine, mining, and many more. As dangerous as they are, however, confined work spaces cannot be completely avoided, and so the next best option we have is to learn to stay safe while working in these conditions.
What is a Confined Space?
Before tackling a problem, we must always start by identifying it. A confined space is defined by both OSHA and Safe Work Australia as a space that is not designed for a person to work in, but can still fit a person regardless to perform certain actions. These spaces may be fully or partially enclosed with limited or restricted entry and exit points. A few examples of confined spaces include vaults, tunnels, wells, manholes, sewers, tanks, silos, pipes, shafts, and culverts.
In an ideal work scenario, workers are not supposed to and should be restricted from working in confined spaces for extended periods of time due to the wide range of hazards to which workers may be exposed while in the confined space. These hazards include:
- Unsafe oxygen levels – Certain confined spaces may not have a direct access to fresh air, limiting the oxygen supply in the space. This places the worker at risk of injury over time due to a lack of oxygen.
- Harmful gases – Some confined spaces may contain certain substances such as ammonia and methane that can significantly degrade the quality of the air inside the space, placing the worker at risk of poisoning. Methane and similar substances are also highly flammable and can be ignited by an electrical tool or a discharge of static electricity on the worker without the appropriate safety precautions.
- Engulfment – Confined spaces with limited exit points are at risk of engulfment by solid or liquid materials, as is often the case with grain silos and large fluid tanks, which can trap workers that are still inside.
Areas that are considered as confined spaces aren’t necessarily small; many of them, in fact, can fit an entire adult without fail. In addition, it should also be noted that areas that may not be considered confined spaces may also become confined spaces when they fulfil further conditions of what a confined space is – for example, a standard shipping container with full-sized doors is not generally considered as a confined space, but can become a confined space if its entry points are restricted or blocked completely.
Staying Safe in Confined Spaces
Minimising the risk of injury to workers while they operate in confined spaces will require a process with three general steps. The first step is to assess risk – this involves identifying all of the hazards that are already apparent in the confined space, as well as any additional dangers that may arise from the worker’s presence in the space, such as the tools that the worker brings into the confined space.
The second step is to inform. The appropriate personnel must be informed of the key aspects of working in confined spaces. They must be aware of all of the apparent and possible hazards of the confined space to be used, know how to conduct a proper risk assessment for the involved space, and implement the appropriate control measures to ensure the safety of the worker or workers who will operate in the confined space. In addition, agencies in both the industry and the government have regulations in place that legally restrict worker entry into confined spaces that have been found to contain a significant safety hazard – Australian regulations in fact require that companies must obtain a confined space entry permit before they are authorised to work in a confined space. Work supervisors and managers, therefore, should be aware of the process of obtaining the said permits.
The third and final general step is to train. Work Health and Safety Regulation 69 dictates that any workers operating in a confined space must be able to continually communicate with a worker or supervisor outside of the confined work space that should be able to monitor the confined space from the outside and provide immediate assistance should it be needed. These and other WHS Regulations require that workers who will be operating in confined spaces be given the appropriate training and equipment. For all your confined space equipment needs there must be a certain level of quality. The gear must allow workers to be able to move and operate in a manner that ensures their own safety – this involves identifying and responding appropriately to hazardous situations. Workers must also be trained to assist those inside a confined space by identifying potential hazards that a worker inside may not be able to see, and to provide assistance accordingly.