What Can Go Wrong in Confined Space Rescues, Part 2

We need to revise fire service training to include awareness training on many different topics, just like this one.

Recently, we have all seen media attention paid to confined space rescues that have gone wrong. From May 2010 to September 2010, there were three high-profile confined space rescues that resulted in three workers dying, six injured rescuers, and one rescuer fatality. What went so horribly wrong that in these three incidents, so many lives were disrupted?

Bad atmospheric conditions appear to be the culprit in each of these cases. The unfortunate part is that the incidents possibly could have been prevented. Had the atmosphere been monitored in these three cases alone, maybe we could have prevented the six injuries and one fatality. A person in need of help while in a tank, vessel, pit, manhole, or other confined space is in a confined space rescue situation, and confined space awareness training and rescue training are a must for all responding rescuers.

The game has changed from what it was 50 years ago. Our hearts cannot dictate our actions without clearly thinking through the situation and doing a simple risk/benefit analysis. We must not tolerate the mentality of "risking a life to save a body." This may sound cruel, but at this point we are not sure whether we have a rescue or a recovery. Think before you react, and solve the problem.

A rescue is defined as "to free from confinement, danger or evil." OSHA expects a rescue typically should be conducted within four to six minutes by most interpretations. For fire and rescue services, it is nearly impossible to receive an emergency call, respond, size up the scene, set up equipment, and conduct an effective rescue within four to six minutes. Therefore, employers who rely on the fire department as their confined space rescue team may be in violation. OSHA mandates in the 1910.146 standard for confined space rescue that the rescuers must be evaluated and meet certain criteria even to be qualified as the rescue team. If those criteria cannot be met, the employer would be forced to provide a site rescue team or bring the responding team into compliance.

As a fire officer, I can count on one hand the number of times an employer has contacted us to determine our rescue abilities at its confined space work area. Yet the fire and rescue team still will respond and attempt a rescue, risking their lives, because that is what is expected. Where did we go wrong? A lack of training! We need to revise fire service training to include awareness training on many different topics, just like this one.

Managing the Scene
A simple four-gas air monitor can identify what we cannot see: possibly hazardous atmospheres. Workers are required to monitor the atmosphere prior to entry, and so should the rescue team. We cannot see, smell, or taste most of the hazardous atmospheres in which we work, so the only way to identify a possible hazard is to monitor the air quality prior to the entry, either by workers or rescuers.

Monitoring initially will tell you what the current conditions are in the space. Monitoring continuously will tell you about changes that may occur while you are conducting the rescue. Continuous air monitoring is critical to identify the problem before it becomes a danger to you, which in turn allows you to exit the space quickly and safely. All too often, we monitor the space initially and then put the monitor away, thinking everything is good. Remember, the atmosphere inside a confined space can change instantly. These simple procedures should apply to workers in the space or a rescue team needing to do entry.

After the atmosphere inside the space is tested, we need to ensure that it stays in a safe range. We can control this most of the time by the use of an electric or gas blower (with electric being the better choice). If you do use a gas blower, consider a carbon monoxide (CO) monitor at the air intake to ensure no carbon monoxide is being pulled into your fresh air supply. Your goal here is to provide as much fresh, non-contaminated air as possible into the confined space, turning the atmosphere inside the space over at least one time.

With a blower providing fresh air and continuous air monitoring, we should have better control of the atmospheric hazards of the confined space. While all of this is taking place, your team should be getting their gear out and ready, setting up the equipment, preparing the rescuer, preparing for medical, controlling other possible hazards, securing the area, and maintaining control of the situation. It is crucial with timing to multi-task the atmospheric monitoring along with the other set-up duties to expedite a rescue.

Controlling the atmosphere is the most important part of all confined space entry work. This is the main hazard that kills most workers and rescuers. It is also the most difficult to identify and the most widely forgotten because of being unable to see the danger. Say you are called to rescue a worker in a tank and find upon arrival a mid-30s male lying face down in an empty and, by observation, hazard-free environment. What you don't see is the atmospheric hazard; you soon find out the tank is oxygen deficient.

Are you the next victim? Workers and rescuers, employers and owners, entrants and attendants -- all must aggressively manage and control the atmospheric hazards of a confined space. Your life depends on it, your rescuer's life depends on it, and your family depends on it!

Editor's note: Part 1 of this article appeared in the February 2011 issue of OH&S.

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

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