One of the most dangerous decisions construction and general maintenance workers face each day is whether or not the area they’re entering or sending workers into is a confined space. An even bigger threat is NOT knowing what a Confined Space is, or what the rules are regarding entry, working in, or just breaching the plane of the Confined Space. Many businesses today try to stay on top of this issue via confined space entry training, but once in a while, some businesses stumble onto the problem after-the-fact and by mistake.
Examples that have happened in the past include taking a new crew into a large empty tank to clean and paint inside, clean out a large ditch or silo. Viola, you’re IN the confined space! Well, maybe what we really need is to understand what makes these Confined Spaces! In order to learn about Confined Spaces, we need some definitions, and who better to define the problem than the folks who enforce the rules. Lets go look at some OSHA definitions:
By definition, a confined space:
– Is large enough for an employee to enter fully and perform assigned work;
– Is not designed for continuous occupancy by the employee; and
– Has a limited or restricted means of entry or exit.
These spaces may include underground vaults, tanks, storage bins, pits and diked areas, vessels, silos and other similar areas.
By definition, a permit-required confined space has one or more of these characteristics:
– Contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere;
– Contains a material with the potential to engulf someone who enters the space;
– Has an internal configuration that might cause an entrant to be 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 hazards.
Over the years, many lessons-learned have been documented as a result, unfortunately, of workers who entered areas without any confined space training and were later found dead. It has happened where co-workers were present, saw their buddy in trouble and took immediate action to go in after them and save them, this too added to the tragedy and has resulted in loss of life! There are documented cases where multiple deaths occurred after one worker went in and went down, with co-workers hurriedly following to ‘save’ them, only to become a part of the accident scenario!
Asphyxiation (caused by oxygen deficiency or possibly toxic atmosphere) is common in the deaths associated with entering confined spaces. Not having any formal training, workers don’t recognize that the danger in the confined space is NOT the common oxygen we breath, but that the oxygen has been displaced by another of many gases which are colorless, odorless and of course hazardous!
Nitrogen is a big threat, as is argon and carbon monoxide. These gases are heavier in molecular makeup than our breathing air, so they tend to settle in the low areas, accumulating until the oxygen concentration that remains is NOT sufficient to support human life! Another major contributing factor is the fact that workers work in an area in the morning, take a break or go to lunch and when they return, the simply resume work in the area, meanwhile, the air inside the confined space has been either displaced or contaminated to the point where it’s now hazardous to human life!
It’s important to know how to test the confined space air quality BEFORE the workers enter and after any significant break times, and how to recognize potential hazards. It’s also very important to know the regulations that apply to your individual job site, of which the employer and employee is responsible for adhering to. A lot of what is required is common sense, once you know what to look for.
Failure to meet these OSHA requirements can be very dangerous and has serious consequences for the workers involved, as well as the employer, if violations take place! Fines in excess of $600K have been noted, depending upon the circumstances. The fine is bad enough, but it can be associated with a significant tragedy, loss of human life!
Having the proper safety knowledge can go a long way in protecting yourself and those around you. Make sure you understand that the best way to return to work tomorrow is by working safely today.