Confined but Not Alone: Protecting Workers in Tight Spaces

Confined but Not Alone: Protecting Workers in Tight Spaces

Understanding the risks of confined spaces can help keep entrants safe.

How many of you feel uncomfortable in small, confined spaces? Quite a few of you. While some level of claustrophobia is fairly normal, there are those who choose to work in confined spaces, even thriving in such environments. However, confined working environments can be dangerous for a number of reasons, which you will see below.  

Working in confined spaces presents a number of unique occupational health and safety challenges and safety hazards which can be fatal when proper safety protocols and strategies are not implemented and employed within the team. 

What is a Confined Space? 

When you think of a confined space, what comes to mind? “Confined space” can be a subjective term, depending on our spatial comfort levels and physical size. If you ask OSHA, they would tell you that a confined space is a work area large enough for the worker to enter and perform tasks, but is not designed for people. They add that a confined space “also has limited or restricted means for entry or exit and is not designed for continuous occupancy.”

Under OSHA’s 1915.84: Working alone safety regulation, whenever a worker is doing their job alone, “such as in a confined space or isolated location, the employer shall account for each employee” regularly throughout their shift via some form of communication.

Who Works in Confined Spaces? 

People who work in confined spaces can come from a wide range of industries and backgrounds, some of which require them to perform their jobs in tight areas more often than others.  

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), from 2011 to 2018, the top five occupations with the most confined spaces-related deaths were:  

  • Construction laborers 
  • Farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers  
  • First-line supervisors of construction trades and extraction workers 
  • Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters  
  • Farmworkers and laborers, for crops, nurseries and greenhouses

The incidents that killed these people included trench collapses, fall to a lower level, inhalation of harmful substance, engulfment of other collapsing materials, fire and explosions, as well as running machinery. 

What are the Safety Hazards of Confined Spaces? 

In the same time frame, the BLS states more than 1,000 workers died from occupational injuries involving a confined space. These people were working in the following areas: 

  • Tank, bin, vat interiors (septic tanks, grain bins and silos, oil tanks) 
  • Ditches, channels, trenches, excavations 
  • Underground mines, caves, tunnels (includes sewers, manholes and storm drains) 
  • Confined spaces on vehicles (tanker trucks) 
  • Manure pits 
  • Crawl spaces 
  • Wells, cisterns 

Additionally, people working in confined spaces also face poor air quality with not enough oxygen to breathe or toxic gases that make the worker dizzy and/or lose consciousness. Ventilation, therefore, must be a priority in spaces where it’s been determined that the air quality is compromised. These workers can also be exposed to dangerous chemicals, also causing toxic fumes as well as burns. 

Physical safety hazards of confined spaces include extreme noise, extreme temperatures, excessive vibration and radiation. The biological hazards of working in these environments are fecal matter, fungi, molds and the infectious viruses and bacteria that can come from those toxic substances. 

Isolation 

No matter what the incident may be, what makes working in confined spaces so dangerous is the difficulty to reach the lone worker, quickly removing them from the hazardous circumstances, and getting them help. In an emergency where there’s free-flowing liquid or other materials, the entrance and exit may not be accessible for someone to get in to help and vice versa, for the worker to escape to safety. In many cases, these spaces do not allow for free movement and therefore can prevent the worker from helping themself.

Working in isolation where help may not be readily available can impact the psychological well-being of the worker, creating stress, anxiety and dangerous mistakes as a result. Even though there may be coworkers on the other side of the tunnel wall, the worker can still be isolated and alone because they cannot easily request help. 

Communication is Key 

The isolated nature of working in confined spaces limits the type and depth of communication between the lone worker and the employer or monitor. Working in confined spaces, communication can be limited, or at very least, difficult to accomplish, leaving these workers more vulnerable than those working in open spaces and areas. 

The success of emergency response is reliant on the information passed between the worker and employer throughout the shift. This is the same for crisis management in which the more context and information an employer knows about the confined workers’ circumstances, the better. Information that may initially appear irrelevant could actually be integral to a successful rescue during an incident. Try to foster a healthy communication culture when possible, creating opportunities for engagement and connection, and ultimately, a safer organization.  

Safety tips for Employers to Protect These Workers 

With a stretching span of safety hazards threatening these confined workers, it can be daunting for the employer to tackle such differing, dangerous risks. However, with enough planning, coordination and consultation, companies can proactively protect their people working in restricted work spaces. 

Leverage Safety Technologies 

Because of the tight circumstances in which movement of their limbs is limited, access to communication devices can be very difficult. Communication, of any kind, is fundamental to fast, efficient emergency response when seconds and minutes can determine if a worker lives or dies. 

Thankfully, wearable technologies are becoming increasingly compact and easy to use, becoming particularly useful in worker health and safety. Unobtrusive detectors will alert the worker and monitor if toxic gases are present in the work space, or motion features will signal an emergency if the worker has collapsed and is unable to request urgent help themselves.  

Regularly Test and Assess 

When people are putting their well-being on the line to work in a potentially dangerous, restricted space, it is up to the employer to regularly test the air quality, provide necessary ventilation, as well as test the surrounding infrastructure that will confine the employee.  

These tests should be part of a greater hazard assessment of the entire workspace, exhaustively identifying all existing and potential safety hazards in the workspace. Hazard assessments must be performed consistently or as needed such as when there are changes to the staff or physical changes to the structure and work environment. Once the employer has identified all of the safety hazards, they can explore ways to mitigate the hazards and proactively reduce the risk of incidents from occurring.  

Proper PPE 

It is imperative that employers invest in and provide the best personal protective equipment (PPE) available for their confined employees. Depending on the work and industry, confined-work PPE can include face shields and masks, protective gloves, hearing protection, fire- and chemical-resistant clothing and respirator devices.  

Safety Policies 

The backbone of any successful safety program and its protocols is the family of safety policies, which help guide new protocols and strategies from when they are just an idea to implementation within operations and the team. For example, employees working in confined spaces often work alone and require special safety accommodations outlined and planned within a working alone policy. Another example is a workplace violence prevention policy to protect employees from violence both within the company and externally with the public.  

Legal Requirements for Confined Worker Safety 

There is currently no federal legislation for this issue, however, OSHA has addressed confined work safety in its specific safety standards for general industry, maritime and construction. While some are specific to certain industries, they are predominately applicable to the safety of all confined workers. For example, Standard 1915.12(a)(1) Precautions and the order of testing before entering confined and enclosed spaces and other dangerous atmospheres states that “The employer shall ensure that the following spaces are visually inspected and tested by a competent person to determine the atmosphere's oxygen content prior to initial entry into the space by an employee."  

These standards provide proven guidance on how to protect people working in these environments. And even though there is no confined work-safety legislation, by abiding by OSHA’s safety standards and conducting hazard assessments and providing safety technology, the employer can prove that the due diligence was performed in the case of an audit or investigation.  

Not Alone 

Confined work can be isolating and stressful, in addition to dangerous for the people doing the work. Be that as it may, there is work that can be done now to prevent loss and tragedy in the future. It’s impossible to see what lies ahead, but knowing the environment now and what the workers are facing will help you be better prepared and help you anticipate the hurdles that work throws at you down the road. 

This article originally appeared in the September 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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