Can an Industrial Vacuum Solve Confined Space Hazards?

From grain handling operations to heavy blast material, pit cleaning with vacuums allows workers to clean outside of confined spaces.

Two workers died this week and two will die next week, statistically speaking, in confined space-related accidents according to OSHA data that documents an average of 92 deaths and nearly 11,000 injuries per year. Of those 92 annual deaths, one-quarter of them occur during repair, maintenance, cleaning and inspection activities in enclosed spaces.

Despite OSHA’s spotlight on confined spaces, the number of deaths remains relatively the same as it was 23 years ago. In November last year, the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) released NFPA 350: Guide for Safe Confined Space Entry to provide extended guidance and best practices to fill in gaps or confusion in relation to OSHA standard CFR 1910.146.

Working in septic tanks, silos, reaction vessels, vats, boilers, holding tanks, pits or similar structures or enclosures qualifies as working in a confined space. According to NFPA 350, “all confined spaces have the potential to become OSHA-defined permit-required confined spaces, depending on the work to be performed and the inherent, potential, or introduced hazards in the space at the time of the entry.”

OSHA standards designates a permit-required confined space when it has a hazard to health or life associated with it such as containing a hazardous atmosphere; material with the potential to engulf someone who enters the space; an internal configuration that might cause an entrant to be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls or by a floor that slopes downward and tapers to a smaller cross section; and/or contains any other recognized serious safety or health hazards.

Confined Space Procedures are costly in terms of the resources needed for evaluation, training and additional manpower to monitor confined space entry. Unfortunately, the safety procedure of providing a monitor frequently ends up putting additional workers at risk since anywhere between 40 to 60 percent of all confined space deaths include would-be rescue workers.

Whether it is a confined space or permit-only confined space, the same health and safety hazards that typically exist on the shop floor—such as ergonomic hazards, slip and fall, overexertion, explosion, or uncontrolled release of energy—also exist in confined spaces; however, in confined spaces, there is a smaller margin for error.

Any time organizations can engineer out, or minimize, health and safety hazards with controls, it reduces risk. Therefore, using controls to minimize risk is the preferred method for handling hazards—so much so that the NFPA dedicated an entire chapter in NFPA 350 to hazard elimination and control.

Since 25 percent of confined space deaths occur during cleaning, NFPA 350 states, “whenever possible, workers should clean the confined space from the outside, without the need for entry.”

Just as each operation has proprietary processes and every enclosed space application is unique, each industrial vacuum cleaning system is different and selected to fit the application. In some instances, small air and electric powered drum-style units will suffice, while others require larger units to accommodate multiple users and filtration systems capable of capturing particles that are invisible to the naked eye. Some, of course, will also need to be intrinsically safe.

The restriction of combustible dust in an enclosed space increases the likelihood of an explosion. In areas where combustible dust is present in an enclosed area, NFPA 350 8.4.3 addresses the need for intrinsically safe equipment and procedures, stating that “entry supervisors should ensure that combustible dust residue should be removed using intrinsically safe vacuums” and “confirm that vacuum equipment is grounded and bonded to the space being cleaned.”

Feed and Grain Mills

In feed and grain mills, keeping the area clean not only eliminates organic combustible dust accumulations, but also prevents pest infestations and product contamination. Using an industrial vacuum cleaner with wands and attachments often eliminates the need to enter a boot pit for cleaning, freeing up valuable resources and eliminating risk of death in enclosed spaces.

Recently, a feed mill installed a breakaway vacuum system when production increases made housekeeping more cumbersome. Breakaway vacuum systems can be defined as somewhere between portable industrial vacuums and powerful central vacuum systems. These breakaway vacuum systems use powerful portable vacuum units in concert with several small tubing networks. For instance, if a user is working in a 100-by-200 square foot area and there are two more areas in another building, individual tubing networks are created and the portable unit rolled from one tubing network to the next and so on, providing the convenience of a multi-inlet central vac, with the energy efficiency and flexibility of a portable vacuum.

Ideal for use in Class II Division 2 areas, breakaway central vacuum systems utilize a portable vacuum with a dirty-side volume less than 8 cubic feet and therefore, per NFPA standards and OSHA regulations, does not need an explosion vent to use in Class II Division 1 and 2 areas.

In contrast, a typical stationary central vacuum system to suit the plant layout at the feed mill would have been much larger and require an explosion protection system. The combination of the larger size and explosion protection would have most likely led to an outdoor installation, introducing additional challenges such as the acquisition of air permits as well as construction permits. The breakaway system avoids such costs and delays, providing the convenience of a multi-inlet central vac, with the energy efficiency and flexibility of a portable vacuum.

Although the feed mill didn’t originally purchase the system with the intent to eliminate entry into the confined space of the feed mill’s elevator pits, one of the biggest benefits and quickest cost reductions for the company came with cleaning the elevator pits from outside.

Those areas tended to accumulate hidden dust, and the process of having to enter permit-required enclosed space called for a three-person team to monitor the air. Now, with the use of extension tubes on the portable vacuum, no one needs to enter the space to clean it.

Abrasive Blasting

According to NIOSH publication Industrial Health and Safety Criteria for Abrasive Blast Cleaning Operations, “there are general safety problems inherent to working in confined spaces” in abrasive blasting operations. Abrasive blasting is taxing on machinery causing substantial wear and tear on components which results in regularly servicing equipment to maintain operation. Often when maintenance is necessary, media must be removed from blast pit areas to accommodate those repairs. While some blast media pits are shallow and narrow and create hazards (but are technically designated as enclosed space hazards), some facilities have deeper pits that do qualify as enclosed spaces.

To eliminate the need for workers to descend into an enclosed space in order to shovel and scoop tons of heavy blast media out of the pits, a metal fabricator sought out a vacuum designed for high volume recovery in an industrial setting.

The fabricator utilized the same type of portable vacuum used in the breakaway vacuum system at the feed mill, but rather than rolling the vacuum to various tubing networks, the facility decided to move the 15HP vacuum, capable of recovering up to five tons per hour, via forklift to the pit area to remove the material. This eliminated the need for workers to enter a confined space to clean blast material from the pit.

Sump Pits

In the metalworking industry, under the floor sump pits, used to keep an area dry prevent flooding, are a common area where confined space standards apply.

Under the floor sump pits are where sand-like, semi-solid material forms when residual particulates and chips settle in the bottom of a sump. These pits are ideal breeding grounds for harmful bacteria and fungus that endangers workers’ health, shortens the life of metalworking fluids, interferes with machine function and can eventually plug fluid lines.

Some organizations clean their sump pits on a monthly basis to maintain coolant quality, but others wait an entire quarter to avoid the hazards and cost of shoveling masses of sludge from an enclosed space.

Continuous duty, industrial sump vacuum cleaner systems reduce the amount of time workers need to spend removing sludge from enclosed spaces, allowing operators to empty sump pits at one to two gallons per second (60-120 GPM).

In many situations, the use of vacuum cleaning equipment with extended hoses and tools can eliminate the need for workers to enter confined spaces, eliminating costly enclosed space procedures while preserving life.

Today’s industrial vacuum cleaners are powerful tools that can be equipped for wet or dry applications, suitable for Class II Division 2 areas, and designed to render explosives inert. Most likely, if it isn’t possible to completely eliminate a confined space cleaning hazard, working with a vacuum cleaning expert can at least minimize employee exposure in enclosed spaces.

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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