OSHA’s preamble to the rules on confined spaces paints a very bleak picture of what ‘failure to comply’ can be. Asphyxiation is the leading cause of death in confined spaces, followed by incineration, then being ‘ground-up’ and finally being crushed by rotating or moving parts. It’s apparent that OSHA is really driving home exactly how dangerous and potentially life-threatening working in a permit-required confined space can be. The process developed to determine safe entry of confined spaces has saved thousands of lives and will continue to, when properly adhered to. Think about a roller coaster ride, no matter how safe the ride is, when you approach that first long drop and look down, your heart still sinks. The same is inherently true for workers entering confined spaces. Our bodies know when we are entering a dangerous situation and staying calm isn’t always easy—especially when our minds know what kind of grizzly fate could be waiting. I’ll provide you with some practical ways to stay calm both before entering and once inside a confined space.
Traditional vs. Permit Required
The following can be applied to working in both traditional as well as permit-required confined spaces. A traditional confined space is: any working environment that poses a health or safety hazard to workers, is large enough for an employee to enter fully and perform assigned work, is not designed for continuous occupancy by the employee and has limited or restricted means of entry or exit. OSHA defines the need for a confined space permit when working in a confined space that has one or more of the following elements present: Engulfment, configuration, atmospheric or other recognized hazard. Because the danger is so apparent in this environment OSHA mandates that all spaces be considered permit-required until the proper pre-entry procedures demonstrate otherwise.
Before any assignment begins the employer must provide proper training for all workers required to enter a confined space. Before entering a space, workers should quickly run over key-points of their training, such as what to do in an emergency situation. This training provides workers a chance to fully understand the risks present. Additional training is required when any changes occur in the permit space program or if the permit space operations create any new hazard.
Written programs and posted entry permits also allow workers to be up-to-date on exactly what hazards are present in the confined space they will be entering. A written program would include a summary of all present hazards, an emergency exit plan, as well as a summary of the atmospheric check. The atmospheric check is required to check for oxygen levels, flammability and known or suspected toxic substances. This becomes especially pertinent keeping in mind that asphyxiation is the leading cause of worker death in confined spaces and that asphyxiation generally results from oxygen deficiency or from exposure to toxic atmospheres.
A written copy of operating and rescue procedures as required to be kept on the work site for the duration of the job and entry permits should be posted next to entry of any confined space. If you have trouble locating either document at your worksite, see the site manager.
Equipment for Safe Entry
Maintenance, cleaning and inspection activities account for almost one-quarter of confined space-related fatalities. It is essential that workers are familiar and are able to test their own Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) before entry. The site-specific PPE needed for a jobsite is outlined in the written program. Ensuing that your workplace is mechanically sound isn’t always easy for the average employee, so checking for proper safety signage and labeling is a viable substitute. If there is a lack of signage there is a good chance that maintenance efforts are not what they should be and the site manager should be alerted.
Nothing to fear but fear itself
The number one thing to remember while working inside a confined space is that you are not alone. Focus and being aware of your surroundings can save your life, but there are too many factors for a single employee to keep track of. That’s why attendants are required any time a worker enters a confined space. An attendant is requited to remain outside the permit space during entry operations unless relieved by another authorized attendant. They perform non-entry rescues when specified by the employer's rescue procedure, as well as know existing and potential hazards. It is crucial that the attendant maintains communication with and keep an accurate account of those workers entering the permit space. The attendant is also responsible for ordering evacuation of the permit space when needed. The attendant is your life-line and aside from acts of God, has the training and ability to save you from any hazard that might threaten your life while in a confined space. To stay calm in such a high-stress work environment, simply remember that you are part of team following a tested set of safety procedures and you always have someone looking out for you.