Confined Space 101: What You Need to Know About Fall Protection PPE 

Confined Space 101: What You Need to Know About Fall Protection PPE 

Planning, preparation and proper equipment is key to protecting confined space workers from fall hazards. 

Confined space work can be dangerous. The truth of this statement cannot be understated. Confined space workers face a plethora of risks, ranging from asphyxiation and engulfment to electric shock, explosion and falls. Because the onus to protect confined space workers is on the employer, it’s imperative for employers to recognize and plan appropriately for confined space work. This article is intended to assist employers in understanding that obligation as it relates to fall protection.

For full compliance with the OSHA 29 CFR 1910.146 standard that governs confined spaces, employers are urged to rely upon the expertise of safety and health professionals, such as industrial hygienists. This article is intended to help employers like you who want to effectively protect confined space workers from falls by helping you understand more about confined spaces, including what they are, why they’re a fall hazard and what essential PPE is needed.

What is a Confined Space?

The core definition of a confined space is any area that’s not easily accessible by people, is not intended for long-term occupancy, is characterized by limited entry and exit points and has the potential for the presence of significant hazards.

OSHA’s definition of confined space is particular to what they call “permit-required confined space.” As defined by OSHA, permit-required confined space is any area that:

  • Contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere
  • Includes material that have the potential to engulf anyone who enters
  • Features walls that converge inward or floors that slope downward, tapering to a smaller space that can trap or asphyxiate an entrant
  • Comprises any other recognized safety or health hazard, such as unguarded machinery, exposed live wires or heat stress

Confined spaces are found in varying sizes and shapes within a wide variety of industries. Because not all confined spaces are as easily identifiable as a confined space, as an employer, you should leverage the expertise of highly trained workers to identify their confined spaces and assess the potential hazards. This will allow you to determine which controls are appropriate for your specific confined space hazards.

How Confined Spaces Present a Fall Hazard

There is a wide range of potentially dangerous situations for confined space workers, including: lack of oxygen, chemical reactions, accidental leaks and spills and exposure to toxic gases. One of the least understood hazards, however, are slips, trips and falls. Fall hazards in confined spaces can result at any point from entry to exit, and, of course, while the worker is doing his/her work in the confined space.

Typical fall hazards include physical equipment that is an obstacle to a worker, slippery surfaces, poor visibility, inadequate lighting, unsure footing and changes in the confined space environment as a result of such things as leaks, spills and vapors.

Preparing for Confined Space Entry

Before any worker enters a permit-required confined space, both you, as the employer, and your employees, should know and follow a well-defined system of confined space procedures and precautions. Be aware that if there is any deviation from the standards set on the permit, the confined space should be immediately evacuated.

To further ensure worker safety, it’s imperative to equip and train workers on the correct tools and proper use of their PPE before confined space entry.  All fall protection and other PPE should be checked before use and confirmed to be in good working order.  Any equipment that shows signs of wear, damage or doesn’t pass inspection should not be used.

Under no circumstances should an employee enter a confined space without the correct training and equipment – this includes rescue workers. More than 60 percent of all confined space fatalities occur because attendants or unauthorized personnel rush into hazardous environments without the proper PPE.

Must-Have Fall Protection

Fall protection PPE is used in confined space work for entry, exit and retrieval/rescue. As such, confined space equipment should consist of a complete system. Here are some common components of a confined space fall protection system:

Entry and Retrieval.  A tripod/davit system with attachment points is an easy-to-use device that’s simple to set up and gives workers a stable base of support.

Connecting devices. A self-retracting lifeline with emergency retrieval capability provides both a rescue option, as well as fall arrest protection. A hoist, or winch, provides an option for raising and lowering materials and personnel. Both devices should be used on your tripod or davit arm system.

Full-body safety harness. Every entrant should wear a full-body safety harness with an attached lifeline. This provides fall arrest protection and enables safe and quick extraction, even in horizontal applications, if necessary. Harnesses may be equipped with shoulder, back, or chest D-rings for both entry and rescue scenarios. Harness types can vary, depending on the job and rescue plan, as well.

Confined Space Fall Protection Checklist

All confined space activity should be conducted in accordance with OSHA standards. The following questions, however, may be useful in evaluating your fall protection PPE for confined spaces:

  • Is the equipment stored in a clean, dry, cool space?
  • Has all fall protection equipment been inspected by a competent person in the required time frame (six months or a year pending local regulation?
  • Have all workers received correct and adequate fall protection and rescue training?
  • Have all personnel been properly fitted for a full-body harness?
  • Does each harness have the appropriate attachment points for fall arrest, personnel-riding and rescue?
  • Is a tripod or davit appropriate for the specific confined space?
  • Is portability of davits important?
  • Is there enough clearance for the tripod to fit over the entrance without risk of one of the feet coming too close to the confined space opening?
  • Is there enough space around the confined space opening to ensure that top-side attendants are safe from falling into the opening?
  • Does the confined space have a ladder in place or is a hoist/winch needed?
  • What is the maximum line length needed within the confined space to complete the task?
  • Is proper equipment available for entry rescue and is it included in the rescue plan?
  • Does the equipment allow for non-entry rescue and is all equipment matched to the rescue plan?
  • Is there a method for tracking and monitoring the condition of all equipment?

Conclusion

The potential hazards of confined space work should never be underestimated. You, as an employer, must maintain your readiness with a combination of a precise, well-practiced plan, the proper PPE for the environment, and all-worker training on equipment and OSHA-compliant procedures.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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