Overcoming Instincts: How to Improve Safety in Confined Spaces

Overcoming Instincts: How to Improve Safety in Confined Spaces

Coming to the aid of a coworker in need could place you in danger yourself without the proper equipment.

No matter who you are or what you do, we all face one similar, major challenge: overcoming ingrained behaviors to change our actions. Sometimes, these ingrained behaviors make it difficult for us to remember to do something simple, like run an errand on the way home from work. Other times, our ingrained behaviors can put our lives—or the lives of others—at risk.

Our first instinct is usually an action we take without much thought. When someone around us is in danger, our instinct is to help. We tend to provide aid to others in emergency situations without thinking about the possibility of putting ourselves at risk. In some cases, this behavior is helpful, like when we catch a toddler before he falls and hits his head.

Unfortunately, there are times when this helpful behavior can make a dangerous situation become dire. A major instance of this is when someone is in confined spaces while on the job—a situation where safety is a priority. We should not rely on snap decisions in potentially dangerous situations. Instead, we should carefully think through possible options before we act.

We always want to act swiftly, but we also need to be sure that the actions we take to help others won’t hurt ourselves or other people around us. What we do and how we decide to do it can ultimately determine the outcome of a situation.

The Danger of Relying on Instincts in Confined Spaces

When working in confined or enclosed spaces, our decision-making process becomes even more important. A split-second decision, if it’s the wrong one, could mean life or death for you as well as other workers. It’s imperative to understand the dangers that confined spaces can pose. Because of these dangers, agencies like OSHA have issued guidelines to help us stay safe while working in these environments.

It’s important to adhere to these requirements when using atmospheric gas monitors. We use monitors to test air quality before entry, checking that the confined space is clear of all toxic and combustible gases and has a safe oxygen level. These pre-entry tests help ensure that when a worker goes into the space, he or she won’t face immediate danger. After pre-entry sampling, we must also monitor the space continuously while the worker is inside. Atmospheric conditions in confined spaces can change quickly. Without continuous monitoring, a worker could be exposed to toxic and combustible gases without knowing it.

When we see a fellow worker in need, our instinct is to rush in to save him or her. However, this instinct can be life-threatening in the presence of gas hazards. If we enter the space or provide aid without understanding why our teammate has fallen or is unresponsive, we may end up in danger ourselves. The majority of confined space horror stories have one thing in common: multiple injuries or deaths when workers rush in to help a fellow worker.

Even with proper training, our instinct is often to react and attempt a rescue, whether we will make it out alive or not. The sad truth is that this ingrained behavior of helping others is the reason why would-be rescuers account for 60 percent of confined space deaths.

Using Instincts and Insights

When our instincts are fallible and doing nothing is not an option, we can turn to technology to help us make better decisions. Technology now allows us to make smarter, faster and safer decisions that can help prevent fatalities—especially in confined spaces. Some handheld and area gas monitors come equipped with wireless connectivity that shares gas readings, man-down and panic alarms. This technology connects as soon as the equipment powers on and shares gas readings from inside the confined space to monitors outside of the space.

With connected gas monitors, we can see the atmospheric conditions around our peers. When monitors are paired, workers remain connected to one another and an alarm will go off when a peer needs help. Connected gas monitors allow you to see the location of your peer and what is causing the alarm. This allows us to determine what protective measures we need to take before attempting a rescue.

As an example, Jane, who is working inside a confined space, was suddenly exposed to 300ppm of hydrogen sulfide and is now lying unconscious within the confined space. Jane’s monitor goes into alarm for the 300ppm of hydrogen sulfide, and her lack of movement triggers a man-down alarm as well. John, who is currently outside of the confined space, sees Jane’s high hydrogen sulfide reading and man-down alarm on his own monitor. Now that John knows the situation, he can quickly decide to contact others, ventilate the area or put on proper PPE before he makes a rescue attempt. Because of the wireless technology that is built into their gas monitors, John can make a smart decision within seconds based on insights, not just instincts.

The Benefits of Connectivity in Safety

One of the biggest advantages is that this technology enables connectivity in areas without cellular or Wi-Fi infrastructure. It is also important to note that the network is built into the monitors and only requires you to turn on the monitor to establish communication with other monitors, so there is no IT support needed.

Working in hazardous environments, especially in confined or enclosed areas, will always be a challenge. However, if we learn how to change our behavior and adopt the latest technologies into our practices, we will be able to work more efficiently and save lives.

This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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