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Protecting Workers in Confined Spaces

Construction sites are constantly evolving, which is why employers must continually emphasize the importance of training, worksite evaluation, and communication to ensure workers are both safe and healthy while performing construction work. An area of particular concern for construction employers is confined spaces. Because of their inherent danger, employers must abide by OSHA’s confined space regulations.

Determining a Confined Space
A confined space is one that hinders a worker’s activities as they enter, work in, or exit the space. Three elements determine a confined space: limited entry and exit points, large enough for a worker to enter, and not designed for extended occupancy. Examples of confined spaces at construction sites include but are not limited to:

  • Vaults
  • Manholes
  • Pits
  • Underground utility pipelines
  • Tanks
  • Boilers
  • Stormwater drains

Working in confined spaces exposes workers to dangerous hazards including a lack of oxygen or too much oxygen, a toxic atmosphere, excessive heat, and a flammable or explosive atmosphere. According to the Department of Labor, asphyxiation is the leading cause of confined space deaths. Employers are responsible for not only identifying confined spaces but also identifying those requiring a permit and the applicable entry rules for that particular space.

Permit-Required: The Second Type of Confined Space
A permit-required confined space has the same elements as described above for confined spaces; however, it will contain one or more of the following elements. The first element is a hazardous atmosphere, the second element is an asphyxiating risk to the entrant, the third element is either inwardly converging walls or a downward sloping floor that tapers into a small cross-section. The last element is any other hazard that threatens the health and safety of an entrant (e.g., exposed wires, unguarded machinery).

Tips for Keeping Workers Safe in Confined Spaces
A written confined space program is required by OSHA. Permit-required confined spaces require a written entry permit. Straight-forward, effective confined space training will save countless lives. The following tips can help keep workers safe:

  • Identify permit-required spaces and hazards before entry
  • Follow procedures for entering and exiting space
  • Ensure workers are thoroughly trained before entering the spaces
  • Limit entry to authorized workers only
  • Follow strict procedures for evaluation (e.g., test oxygen, toxicity, flammability) before and during a worker’s entry
  • Use and maintain the proper equipment when entering the space (e.g., fall protection, rescue, ventilation)
  • Delegate a monitoring attendant outside of the space and maintain contact with the attendant at all times

Rescuing Workers
Your comprehensive confined space rescue plan should include the following three ways to go about saving the worker’s life from a confined space:

  • Non-entry: Entrapped workers are not rescued by a person entering the space, but rather the rescue is conducted by such means as a rope, for example.
  • Entry by others: There is no trained rescue on site and the entrapped worker is rescued by emergency rescues services.
  • Entry by trained company employees: Members of a company’s rescue team are trained to specifically rescue an entrapped worker from a confined space.

A Well-Prepared Rescue Team is Essential
More than 60 percent of confined space fatalities involve rescuers. While inadequate training is a culprit for confined space deaths, the behavior of workers is also a leading cause. Even a well-planned rescue procedure can go awry if a worker acts in haste, forgetting the training and procedures they have previously received. Witnessing another worker in a dangerous predicament can cause the observing worker distress, and their natural emotion may cause them to react impulsively, placing themselves at risk as well. This is why rescuers must be fully trained and qualified to perform confined space rescues.

Author’s note: The information contained in this article is for general educational information only. This information does not constitute legal advice, is not intended to constitute legal advice, nor should it be relied upon as legal advice for your specific factual pattern or situation. Regulations and laws may vary depending on your location. Consult with a licensed attorney in your area if you wish to obtain legal advice and/or counsel for a particular legal issue.