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Confined space is an area that, by definition, has limited space and limited openings for entry and exit. Examples of confined space include tunnels, silos, vats, access shafts, truck or rail tank cars, manholes, and storage bins. These spaces should be occupied for short periods of time only, and always while taking necessary precautions.
Confined rescue and self-rescue are more difficult than in ordinary circumstances. Often, confined spaces can contain walls that curve inward or floors that slope downward, and have the potential to trap or asphyxiate. Other hazards encountered in confined spaces are unguarded machinery, exposed live wires, or temperature-related risks. Perhaps the biggest danger is in the air—a person may not always have adequate access to natural ventilation, resulting in workers coming into contact with air contaminants or dangerous gases.
To maximize safety, many North American states and provinces make it mandatory for workers that frequent these spaces to receive specialized training. Any such training should cover the topics below.
When it is difficult to escape a space, avoiding a potential threat or removing the hazards themselves can be an involved task. It’s important for employees to be diligent and have the tools to properly assess risk. This part of confined spaces training must meet requirements and emphasize hazard control procedures, teaching employees about different types of dangers they may encounter in a given space, and how to react to them. They should be aware of all the possible hazards and never assume that something is safe just because it seems safe.
The more comfortable employees are with all the given solutions to potential hazards, the more likely they will be to use them quickly and efficiently, even when faced with a dangerous or distressing situation. Practice and repetition is a good way to help workers develop an automatic response to certain situations.
PPE and rescue equipment
Personal protective equipment is required in almost all confined spaces, and employees must be properly instructed on how to use it appropriately. Workers should know and understand how to use all types of relevant PPE, from respirators and other breathing equipment to protective gloves and harnesses. Equipment training will provide them with the knowledge and the understanding that they need to safely use the tools that are there to protect them. Because what is the point of PPE if it’s not used correctly?
The same is true for the attendant (also knowns as the safety watch or standby), who monitors the situation from outside. If they have access to rescue equipment such as safety harnesses, lifting equipment, or a lifeline, but don’t know or remember how to use them properly, then the safety of their colleagues is in jeopardy. Relevant training will allow them to address any emergency situation in a timely and safe manner, giving their colleague more of a chance to emerge from a dangerous situation unscathed.
Monitoring devices not only keep workers informed of the situation while they’re in a confined space, but they also help assess if that space is safe to enter in the first place. Employees need to know that testing for flammable gases and vapors and potential toxic air contaminants is paramount before any work can begin. The same is true for oxygen levels. Assuming that there’s enough oxygen in a confined space without testing is dangerous, especially because many gas monitors use a sensor that requires an oxygen concentration of at least 10 percent to detect combustible gases. If this type of monitor is used in a confined space without assuring that the oxygen levels are acceptable, it will not respond to combustible gases, regardless of the amount that’s present.
Testing for gases should include as many combinations as possible. Toxic gas hazards vary depending on the space your employees need to enter, and it would be a mistake to assume that, for example, only carbon monoxide is a possibility. There are many multi-gas monitors available on the market that can measure a number of gases simultaneously, giving employees a better understanding of their working conditions.
Monitoring devices require regular maintenance. If employees are confused about how to bump-test and calibrate their gas monitors or about how often they should do it, the monitors might become a confusing encumbrance and not a useful safety tool. Training should include and address the detailed function and maintenance of all equipment used on the job.
Human factors training is largely neglected when companies conduct confined spaces safety. A great amount of attention is given to performing a job or handling hazards without addressing the possibility of human error. Incidents are most likely to occur when an employee’s headspace prevents them from giving a job their undivided attention. When workers rush through a job to ensure its completion, when they are frustrated, when they are fatigued, or when they’ve performed a job so many times it has skewed their perception of risk, they’re more likely to make mistakes. The best confined spaces training addresses these human factors in addition to physical hazards, procedures and equipment.
When it comes to areas that have the potential to pose a significant risk, specialized training beyond the required basics should always be provided. Confined spaces are no exception, as employees’ chances for encountering a variety of hazards increase in such a work environment. Therefore they need to demonstrate exceptional personal awareness, in addition to the technical understanding of their surroundings. Combining those factors means that your employees will have more tools at their disposal when working in confined spaces or dealing with unexpected hazards. And the more they know and understand of their surroundings and behavior, the safer they are.