Working in confined spaces is something not everyone is able to do. Each year, however, 1.6 million American workers get themselves into tight spots for their job. These small areas come with a whole new set of hazards that simply don’t exist when working in open areas, so companies need to take this into account when preparing any sort of safety standard.
A confined space is typically defined as any area that is large enough for an employee to enter and perform their work, but has limited means of entry and exit. In addition, confined spaces typically don’t have much extra room within them for moving around or adjusting. These areas are not designed for long term occupancy. Some common examples of confined workspaces include ship compartments, silos, pits, access areas and storage bins.
Hazards Associated with Confined Spaces
Every confined space will have its own set of hazards associated with it. With this in mind, someone who is knowledgeable about this type of work environment should evaluate the area before anyone enters. Some common risks associated with this type of work include the following:
- Suffocation – If there is not sufficient ventilation, employees could run out of air and suffocate before they can get out. In these situations, bringing in a air supply is essential.
- Flammable Fumes – If the space has flammable fumes, it is essential that special care is taken. This is also true if any of the tools or equipment you bring into the area can produce flammable fumes or materials.
- Toxic – Toxic material in a confined space can become very concentrated over time. Entering these areas without proper protection can be extremely dangerous. Whether the area is toxic naturally, or you bring in toxic materials like welding equipment, paint or other things, it is essential to keep this risk in mind.
- Engulfing of the Employee – If the confined space poses a risk that the employee could be engulfed in a liquid (water) or solid (concrete, sand, ect). This is typically a risk only when working under ground or in other unstable environments.
- Electrocution – In many confined spaces there are electrical wires. Without special care, employees could come into contact with a bare wire, resulting in electrocution. It is also possible that the tools or equipment being used could cut an electrical wire, causing significant harm.
Of course, there are many other risks associated with working in confined spaces. Identifying the exact hazards in a given area is an important first step before sending anyone in to work.
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Confined Space Accident Prevention
The best way to keep everyone safe is to take steps to prevent accidents from occurring. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) suggests that as much as 85% of the accidents that occur in confined spaces could have been prevented if those on the job had learned about the potential hazards.
This means that additional training from employers, combined with more inspections prior to entering these small areas, could help to save hundreds of lives per year. In many cases, it would not require any sort of extensive or costly training session in order to improve safety. Example of this type of training would be using training DVD’s (like this Confined Space Awareness Training DVD). Simple common sense, combined with the experience of someone who knows all about confined space safety, will often be enough to keep everyone safe. However, in order to maintain high levels of safety awareness around confined spaces, it is also important to post pertinent safety signs regarding the risks associated with confined spaces (such as this confined space wall sign).
Remember, nobody wants there to be an accident, but many people underestimate the true risks of working in confined spaces. Things that would be only a minor inconvenience in most working environments can become life threatening when confined in a small area. The most effective way to get everyone to take this type of thing more seriously is to provide high quality training to everyone who works in confined spaces, or even just around them.
Of course, it is sometimes impossible to predict what types of things will happen, which is why it is important to be prepared for the worst. Ensuring everyone is aware of the risks, and what they should do in the event of an accident is absolutely essential.
Responding to an Accident in a Confined Space
When something goes wrong in confined space you typically only have minutes to respond properly, or it could become fatal. Despite this urgency, however, it is critical to make sure the rescuers are doing the right thing, or they will put themselves at risk. In fact, rescuers are often victims of confined spaces because they rush in to help and are trapped.
According to Amerisafe’s article – Working in Confined Spaces,
[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”” cite=”Amerisafe – Working in Confined Spaces” quotestyle=”style02″]Many of these deaths occur when co-workers attempt to rescue a victim. Experts label these co-workers as ‘Partners in Death.[/sws_blockquote_endquote]
If, for example, someone is working in a confined area and sand or rocks begin to fall on them. Co-workers are tempted to rush in to pull the worker to safety. While this may seem like a good idea at first, it all too often leads to multiple people being trapped or buried alive.
Instead, co-workers should be trained to first secure the area so that whatever is falling does not trap them as well. Once secured, they can move forward with rescuing their trapped colleague. With proper training, it will be much more likely that they will be able to stay safe themselves, as well as rescue their trapped co-worker.
Legal Requirements for Working in Confined Spaces
While the specific laws and regulations vary from state to state, there are almost always legal requirements for people to work in a hazardous area. In many cases, companies will need to get a permit to have employees enter a confined space. This is done to help ensure all the proper safety preparation steps have been taken before anyone enters the area.
Some companies may look at any of these legal requirements as an unnecessary burden, but the fact is, they can save lives. Taking the time and effort necessary to prepare for the risks associated with working in confined spaces is always a good idea, even if it weren’t required by law. This will help to avoid serious injuries as well as costly delays associated with these types of problems.