When it Comes to Confined Spaces, There’s No Room to Skip on Safety Precautions.
In January 2017, a utility worker in Key Largo, Florida, opened a manhole cover and went under a recently paved section of road to investigate why it had settled unevenly. When he stopped responding to coworkers above ground, a second worker went in to see if he needed help. When both stopped responding, The Washington Post reported, a third man entered. What none of these workers knew is that years of vegetation had been rotting underneath the surface, creating a poisonous gas. All three workers were overcome by hydrogen sulfide and methane, causing them to asphyxiate.
These three men lost their lives and two firefighters sustained injury that required medical attention because the danger was not identified before entering.
While many people wouldn’t consider working in a confined space as a work hazard, this situation in Key Largo — as well as numerous multi-million dollar settlements — beg to differ. Confined space work is often dangerous because the hazards that exist aren’t obvious. But without due diligence, these unseen issues can escalate into a deadly situation in seconds, which makes proper training crucial.
Tunnels, storage tanks, culverts, grease pits, trenches, shafts, crawlspaces and manholes are just some of the places that fit into the category of a confined space.
What is Considered a Confined Space in the Workplace?
A confined space is an area that is a small space with limited entry or exit points. It is large enough for an employee or employees to enter and work, but is tight and not designed for long-term occupancy.
OSHA has two classifications for these work environments. They are non-permit confined spaces and permit required confined spaces.
OSHA explains it like this. A non-permit required space has all of the descriptions above. While a permit required confined space has all of the above descriptions as well as at least one of the following hazards.
- Contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere.
- Has walls that converge inward or floors that slope downwards and taper into a smaller area that could trap or asphyxiate an entrant.
- Contains any material/substance that poses an engulfment/entrapment hazard.
- Contains or has the potential to contain any other serious safety or health hazard.
Spot the Dangers Before They Spot You.
Dangers that exist in a permit required confined space include, but aren’t limited to, asphyxiation due to limited oxygen or hazardous gases, explosion, electrocution, engulfment, moving machinery, collapse, rescuers being injured, and falls. Failure to classify an area as permit required and taking the proper precautions can be costly to the worker and has the potential to financially ruin a company.
Whether physical or atmospheric, the dangers of confined space work cannot be ignored. Neglecting to inspect, monitor and address potential hazards before and during work cannot be tolerated.
Every year, lives are lost while working in these small spaces. On average, two workers a week in the United States will die after entering a confined space to work.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Training Doesn’t Just Educate Employees, It Can Save Lives.
Through proper training and certification, workers can greatly reduce and even eliminate the risk of fatalities.
A trained crew evaluates and understands the hazards they may face and communicate these dangers with each other. If the hazard cannot be removed from the work space, proper precautions and equipment must be utilized to keep the worker safe until the job is completed.
It is vital that the workers inside the confined space are in constant communication and monitored from outside where the team understands the dangers and remain alert for any symptoms of distress so an immediate extraction can be implemented at the first sign of trouble.
Trained workers also know when to call for emergency assistance in the event that a worker is adversely affected by seen or unseen hazards. Getting timely treatment for a person is often crucial in ensuring a faster recovery.
Experts caution to take the time to put safety protocols in place.
After all, nobody wants a confined space to turn into a final resting place.