A Job Interrupted Versus a Job Well Done
The four essentials of confined space safety for construction workers.
- By Anne Osbourn
- Mar 25, 2020
Confined space work presents a unique environment: one with potential health and safety risks for many workers. Identifying possible threats and pre-emptively planning to thwart them, however, could make a difference in how the workday goes. Working in a confined space can be both challenging and dangerous. Unlike other work environments, confined spaces have unique parameters and special limitations. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a confined space is an area that:
- is large enough for an employee to bodily enter and perform the work,
- has restrictions to entry or exit, and
- is not designed for continuous human occupancy. Furthermore, OSHA defines a permit-required confined space as one that:
- contains, or has a known potential to contain, a hazardous atmosphere,
- contains material with engulfment potential,
- has an internal configuration such that entrants could be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls, or a floor which slopes and tapers to a smaller cross-section, or
- contains any other recognized serious safety or health hazard.
The special conditions found within confined spaces—namely, physical and atmospheric hazards—mean these work environments should be treated with extreme caution. It should be noted that in spite of the potential dangers, working safely within them is possible. In fact, OSHA says confined space hazards can be prevented if the hazards are addressed before the worker enters the space to perform.
OSHA’s standards for governing confined spaces within the construction industry are unique to the industry and designed to help ensure high safety levels. Specifically, OSHA 29 CFR 1926.1200, Subpart AA (effective August 2015) is designed to help keep construction workers safe from incident, injury, or death by what OSHA says is “eliminating and isolating hazards in confined spaces at construction sites similar to the way workers in other industries are already protected.”1
Standards, of course, are the guidelines employers must follow to help ensure the safety of those working in confined spaces. Here are four other essentials that construction companies must consider with respect to protecting the health and safety of their confined space work crews.
Planning, Preparation & Procedures
There are six groups of hazards that typically appear in confined spaces: (1) atmospheric, (2) biological, (3) corrosive, (4) engulfment, (5) physical, and (6) other, such as poor visibility, inadequate lighting, or unsure footing.
Because of these many hazards, it’s vital that construction company safety managers carefully plan for the hazards and thoroughly prepare all confined space stakeholders long before anyone enters the confined space work area.
To further ensure worker safety, correct tools and equipment also must be on hand before confined space entry. Not only is a lack of proper equipment a potential safety hazard, but it’s also a waste of valuable work time.
Prior to entry and use, all equipment should be checked and found to be in good working order. Protective measures should also be put in place to help ensure the safety of those outside the confined work space. Care should also be taken to prevent the accidental drop of materials into confined space entrances. One such example is erecting a barricade to prevent passersby from the dangers of an open entry.
Furthermore, all confined space workers, including contractors and subcontractors, should adhere to entry permit requirements. Any deviation from the standards set on the permit should result in immediate confined space evacuation.
Lastly, before any worker enters a confined work space, a system of procedures and precautions should be in place and followed by everyone—including supervisors, attendants, and entrants. These procedures should include a mandate such as this: No outside attendant, under any circumstance, should ever enter the confined space. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), more than 60 percent of all confined space fatalities occur because attendants or unauthorized persons rush into hazardous environments without protective equipment.2 Instead, attendants may perform non-entry rescues as specified by company rescue procedures.
Reliable Communication Systems
Another crucial component for confined space work is reliable communication equipment. A working communication system allows workers to continually maintain contact with each other as well as with those stationed outside the confined space. Battery-operated, voice-activated communication systems are ideal in confined space situations because they eliminate the need to hand-operate a device and allow more freedom of movement for the worker.
Keeping communication device batteries in good working order is fundamental, and so is ensuring that each and every device’s range is sufficient for transmission from any area within the confined workspace. Make sure that lines of contact are established between inside and outside confined space personnel, too, so that help can be summoned in the event of an emergency.
Personal Alert Safety Systems, or PASS devices, which are frequently used by fire services, are especially beneficial in confined spaces where communication between workers and attendants might prove difficult. These devices are designed to sound an alarm if the wearer does not move during a pre-specified period of time. The alarm alerts other confined space workers and outside attendants if and when a worker is unmoving, overcome, and needs help or extraction.
Some personal multi-gas detectors have a similar alert feature, allowing them to be manually activated in the event of a hazardous condition or automatically activated if no movement is detected after a set period of time, usually 30 seconds.
Depending on the confined space environment, head, eye, ear, and respiratory protection may be necessary. However, because confined space work inherently limits entry and exit, every entrant should be equipped with an ANSI-approved, full-body harness with an attached lifeline.
Shoulder, back, or chest D-rings/loops may be used as retrieval line attachment points.
For confined space emergencies with extremely tight openings, a spreader bar is ideal in providing both comfort and security when lowering and lifting workers. Most often, the spreader bar is used with a winch and tripod assembly that’s connected to the safety harness via shoulder attachments.
This type of configuration helps keep injured or incapacitated workers in an upright position, thereby reducing the space needed to extract them. Integrated web loops also may be used to secure the person’s arms when lifting or lowering.
All personnel involved in confined space entry, including supervisors, entrants, attendants, and rescue personnel should be well-trained. Individuals authorized for confined space entry must have complete knowledge of the space’s contents and hazards. All confined space workers also must fully understand their duties prior to entry and if changes occur in assigned duties or confined space applications. Training must be certified.
Specifically, employers should ensure that confined space entrants are familiar with:
- Signs of hazard(s) exposure
- Procedures for maintaining outside contact
- Warning signs, symptoms, and prohibited conditions
- Donning, using, and maintaining personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Self-rescue techniques, including safe entry and exit
All confined space workers must be equipped with the proper PPE. Under no circumstances should a worker enter a confined space without the proper equipment and the training to use it.
In addition, all equipment should be inspected carefully before each use and before entry into the confined space work environment. Equipment showing signs of damage, or equipment that does not pass inspection should never be used.
For more information, visit OSHA’s “Confined Spaces in Construction” webpage.3
Worker Protection in Confined Space
Confined space workers can be at risk of several serious injuries or even death. To help ensure worker safety, worksite supervisors and safety managers are encouraged to identify confined spaces and determine whether or not the work area is a permit-required confined space. As a best practice, it is a good idea for those who are tasked with overseeing worker safety to also provide workers with the necessary education, training, and the correct PPE needed to enter, work and exit the confined space work area safely. Doing so could save lives.
This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.