Would-be rescuers too often are victims in confined space incidents.

An Online Course for Confined Space Awareness: Challenges and Opportunities

An introductory-level online course augments formal confined space training but is not meant to replace it.

Three employees were assigned the job of replacing a sump pump in an underground lift station that collected drainage and leached water from a landfill. The first employee entered the station to begin the operation and collapsed. The second employee entered the station to assist his co-worker, was also overcome, and collapsed. When the third employee entered the station to assist the other workers, he, too, was overcome. When rescue services arrived on site to extricate the three victims, air quality measurements revealed all three workers had died from hydrogen sulfide exposure. The company had never evaluated this lift station to determine whether it was a permit-required confined space and, therefore, had not developed and implemented a written permit space program.1

While some online learners would be exposed to confined spaces training for the first time, for others it would be refresher training.Does your workspace contain confined spaces? Probably so. Any area, such as an attic -- or even a storage closet, depending on the chemical stored there -- could potentially be a confined space. Sometimes, confined spaces are difficult to recognize because the space does not appear hazardous or because workers enter it routinely as part of their job duties. Confined spaces can contain potential hazards that are capable of causing severe injury, illness, or death to a worker. According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Labor, 92 confined spaces fatalities occur on average per year.2

An inexperienced worker may not realize the inherent dangers of a confined space. An experienced worker, one who has performed numerous uneventful entries into confined spaces, may develop a sense of false confidence that could result in the oversight or disregard of safety precautions. Without adequate training in confined space entry and rescue procedures, injuries or fatalities are an eventual certainty in any organization. To avoid death or severe injuries, one should assume a confined space contains the most unfavorable situation possible and that the danger will be present upon entry. This awareness mindset, combined with ongoing confined space safety training, can help prevent a tragedy.

Training Needs and Options
OSHA's 1910.146(g) mandates confined space training for affected employees as follows:

"The employer shall provide training so that all employees whose work is regulated by this section acquire the understanding, knowledge, and skills necessary for the safe performance of the duties assigned under this section. Training shall be provided to each affected employee: Before the employee is first assigned duties under this section; Before there is a change in assigned duties; Whenever there is a change in permit space operations that presents a hazard about which an employee has not previously been trained; Whenever the employer has reason to believe either that there are deviations from the permit space entry procedures . . . or that there are inadequacies in the employee's knowledge or use of these procedures."

To meet OSHA's requirements and to better ensure the safety of workers, confined space safety training ideally should have two components: knowledge and application. The knowledge component encompasses general information about the subject matter and the rules and regulations; application reflects the individual's ability to apply the knowledge in a field setting. An effective confined space safety training program should strive to have both of these components. Field training is essential; however, a well-designed online course can be effective for addressing the first component of training: providing crucial knowledge for confined space operations.

An online course allows learners to cover material at their own pace, providing continual opportunity to revisit material in which they have not yet achieved proficiency. Giving the learner extra time to master essential knowledge has the distinct advantage of creating additional time for instructor-led training and application of knowledge in the field.

Providing additional time for confined space entry and rescue training could be especially critical because OSHA determined that in cases where multiple deaths occurred, the majority of the victims died trying to rescue the original entrant from the confined space.3 OSHA's conclusion is consistent with the finding reported by NIOSH that would-be rescuers accounted for more than 60 percent of confined space fatalities.4 It is probably safe to assume that, at some point, something will go wrong during a confined space entry. The probability a rescue will become necessary is significantly high. Knowledge, preparation, and practice will determine the outcome between a successful entry and/or rescue operation or another confined space injury or fatality statistic. Online training can help to provide the knowledge to produce a favorable outcome.

Online Design Considerations
The Texas Engineering Extension Service's (TEEX) online course, Confined Space Awareness, is a two-hour basic course targeted to utility workers. Its overarching goal is to provide the learner with knowledge that will help to prevent injuries and fatalities while working in confined spaces. As a practical matter, the design of this course had two main considerations. First, which topics should be considered essential knowledge? Second, what would be the best way to communicate an awareness of critical confined space hazards and safety to a diverse audience with different levels of experience, as well as different learning styles and abilities?

An awareness-level course should provide the learner with a basic understanding of the subject. When considering a topic as complex as confined spaces, how much information should be included to be beneficial but not overwhelming for a self-paced course? After discussions with subject matter experts, the following topics were determined to represent essential knowledge appropriate for both novice and experienced workers:

1. The distinction between confined spaces and permit-required confined spaces, and the OSHA regulations that govern both

2. Recognition of confined space hazards

3. Hazard control methods

4. Permit-required confined space (PRCS) entry requirements and procedures

5. PRCS rescue and emergency services requirements and procedures

The next design consideration recognized that, while some online learners would be exposed to confined spaces training for the first time, for others it would be refresher training. These diverse groups would have different learning needs, and meeting these needs even in a traditional classroom setting can be quite challenging. One of the strengths of online confined space training is that providing essential knowledge for the inexperienced worker does not necessarily mean it has to be redundant or less challenging for the experienced worker. This course was designed with supplemental layers of information; the novice learner can explore these layers and the experienced learner can skip them, if warranted.

Different learning styles were another consideration in the design of the course. An online course offers maximum potential for addressing different learning styles, especially those of visual and auditory learners. For example, in Confined Space Awareness, topics such as personal protective equipment and PRCS crew roles are demonstrated using illustrative interactions. Graphical depictions of confined space entry and rescue operations that resulted in severe injuries or fatalities provide examples of typical confined space work environments. This approach encourages learners to consider the similarities between the summary narratives and their own experiences. Knowledge assessments that provide feedback and reinforcement help ensure that learners master the core concepts prior to their field application. And finally, as noted previously, the course offers continuous reviewing opportunities. For learners with varying learning styles and abilities, this provides the flexibility and opportunity to fully comprehend the content at their own pace.

Unquestionably, an online course can be an effective and efficient safety training tool. However, it must be emphasized that an introductory-level confined space awareness course, such as this one, is not meant to replace formal confined space training, but rather to augment it. The online knowledge component can be structured to guide participants through essential information such as applicable regulations, confined space hazards, hazard control procedures, and rescue training. This approach can free up instructor time in the classroom and provide more time in the field to practice potentially life-saving entry, exit, and rescue procedures. With continuing innovations in online course development and delivery techniques, significant opportunities lie ahead in this area to provide even more comprehensive blended safety training.

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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