Confined Spaces: Do Not Become Another Statistic

Within the utility industry, workers frequently encounter confined spaces.  A confined space is an area that is large enough for someone to enter, has a limited means of entry or exit, and is not designed for continuous occupancy.  A confined space poses both physical and atmospheric hazards that must be addressed prior to entry.  Despite the changes in time, availability of training, and new regulations, statistics, old or new, show we have not improved mitigating, or eliminating, the risk of confined space injuries and fatalities. 

A confined space includes utility structures, pits, and vaults.  Understanding if the area meets the definition of a confined space is just the beginning.  Once it’s known to be a confined space, the next step is determining if it meets the requirements to classify it as a permit-required confined space.  A permit-required confined space is a confined space that has one or more of the following characteristics: (1) contains or has a potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere, (2) contains a material that has the potential for engulfing an entrant, (3) has an internal configuration such that an entrant could be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls or by a floor which slopes downward and tapers to a smaller cross-section: or (4) contains any other recognized serious safety or health hazard.    

When a confined space is encountered, only properly trained employees can take part in the work.  The confined space regulations define a few specific roles of a confined space team.  The Entry Supervisor is the one that is responsible for determining if the conditions are acceptable for entry, for authorizing entry, for overseeing entry operations, and for terminating a permit when one is required.  The Attendant is someone stationed outside of the confined space and assesses the status of the entrants.  The Attendant and Entry Supervisor can be the same person and is often the competent person.  The Authorized Entrant is an employee authorized by the Entry Supervisor to enter the space and perform work. 

With each role comes specific duties that can only be fulfilled by someone meeting the requirements for that position.  The Entry Supervisor must be familiar with and understand the hazards that may be faced during entry.  When a permit is required, the Entry Supervisor verifies that the space is safe for entry with their signature.  The permit can only be suspended and terminated by the Entry Supervisor.  The Attendant must also be familiar with and understand the hazards that may be faced during entry.  They must be aware of any behavioral effects of atmospheric hazards on entrants.  The Attendant controls access to the space, maintains a log of entrants, and records atmospheric readings of the work area.  If rescue services are required, the Attendant makes that call, and if they can, they provide non-entry rescue services.  The Attendant cannot perform any other duty that may interfere with their primary duty of the confined space Attendant and must stay positioned outside of the space, maintaining communication with the Entrants at all times.  The Entrant is the employee that enters and performs work within the confined space.  The Entrant typically wears the Four Gas Meter and maintains communication with the Attendant throughout the work.          

The regulations provide an alternate entry of a permit-required confined space if the competent person can determine that all physical hazards in the space are eliminated or isolated through engineering controls.  The competent person must be able to demonstrate that the atmosphere is safe for occupancy.  A Four-Gas meter will test for oxygen content, flammable gases and vapors, and potential toxic air contaminants.  Those other potential toxic air contaminants typically are hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide.  A four gas meter is a direct read instrument, which means the current measured levels can be seen in a digital readout on the instrument.  The meter will also provide an audible, flashing, and vibrating alarm if levels are outside of the safe range for occupancy.  The atmosphere within the space must be continually monitored and levels recorded by the Attendant.

There are three types of confined space rescue: non-entry, entry by emergency services, and entry by trained employees.  A non-entry rescue consists of a tripod with a hand winch setup over the entry to the area.  The Entrant is required to wear a fall protection harness that is attached to the winch cable.  When the Entrant is in the confined space, they must maintain tension on the winch cable.  In the case of an emergency and the Entrant cannot safely exit the space on their own, the Attendant would use the winch to get the Entrant out of the confined space safely and without putting themselves in harm’s way.  In remote areas, emergency services may not be sufficient.  Sometimes the response time to the work area is too long.  In those cases, if the rescue plan relies on emergency services, they may need to be scheduled to be onsite and ready to perform the rescue prior to work starting.  A confined space rescue typically involves a specialized team that may not be available for each town.  Other towns may share the team.  Some companies have created confined space rescue teams that train as a group for the specific, confined spaces they will encounter. 

The one message that needs to be clear in an emergency is to fight the urge to jump in and rescue someone.  An eye-opening statistic is that 60% of all confined space fatalities are would-be rescuers.  Take the time to plan the work thoroughly.  Ensure everything is in place, set up, and working as it should before entering any confined space.  Do not take shortcuts and do not become another statistic.

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