Many industrial workplaces contain areas not designed for people; however, workers must enter the space to perform specific jobs and tasks to keep operations running smoothly. Maintenance workers often visit these areas when performing standard repairs and upkeep. These work zone areas are called "confined spaces," which pose significant risks to worker safety due to their enclosed nature. If anything goes amiss while a worker is inside a confined workspace, escape or rescue may become challenging. In addition, these work conditions also present a higher likelihood of accidents because of atmospheric and physical hazards that may cause serious physical harm or even death. For these reasons, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established specific safety regulations for those working in confined spaces.
A utility hole is an example of a confined space.
OSHA's General Duty Clause requires employers to provide employees with hazard-free workplaces, which include addressing recognized hazards in confined spaces. This article will discuss what confined spaces are and the potential hazards for workers in these areas. It will also identify OSHA requirements and training opportunities designed to help keep workers safe in these space
What is a confined space?
A confined space is an enclosed area big enough for a person to enter and complete specific tasks, though it isn't intended to contain human occupants regularly. OSHA also specifies that a confined space is small, has limited access, and provides very few entries and exit points. Each industry's definition of a confined space may vary. However, they must, at the minimum, comply with OSHA regulations. It's important to note that if you can't fit inside the space, becoming trapped is ruled out, and it is no longer considered a confined space.
These dangerous work areas may be classified into two groups: open-topped enclosures and enclosures with limited openings for entry and exit. Open-topped spaces generally have depths that restrict the pure movement of air, such as pits. Confined spaces with limited openings include sewers and silos.
Examples of confined spaces include, but are not limited to, ditches, ductwork, equipment housings, hoppers, pits, tanks, silos, storage bins, vaults, maintenance holes, tunnels, and pipelines. Here are some common industries where these confined spaces exist:
- Agriculture – silos, grain bins, manure pits, water tanks, wells
- Construction – sewer pipes, septic tanks, open ditches
- Food and Beverage – batch cookers, hoppers, mixing vats, storage tanks
- Paper Mill – pulp storage chests, dryer cans, water tanks, vats
- Mining – pits, tunnels
- Railroad – tank cars
- Ships and Shipping– cargo holds, chain lockers, compartments, fuel tanks, freight containers
- Steel – dust catchers, pipelines, sewers, electrostatic precipitators
- Oil and Gas – pipelines, sand storage, mud pits
- Utility – manholes
|Ditches, channels, and trenches
|Silo and grain bin
|Sewers, manholes, and storm drains
|Septic tank and water tank
|Wells and Cisterns
|Oil storage tank
According to the BLS, types of confineds spaces causing the most fatalities from 2011-2018
Hazards and Accidents
First and foremost, workers can become easily trapped, a threat with life and death consequences. Because of the restricted space and limited means of escape, numerous other hazards are associated with entering a confined space. Conditions are worsened due to work activities performed:
- Welding and cutting
- Using chemicals, such as solvents
- Using gas-powered equipment
Below is a breakdown of other everyday hazards, broken up by atmospheric and physical hazards.
Atmospheric hazards affect a person's ability to receive oxygen. Dusts, chemicals, fumes, fog, and mist can all negatively impact a person's ability to breathe. When the potential for these hazards exists, a worker must test the oxygen levels in the confined space before entering.
This type of hazard affects a person's ability to receive oxygen. Dusts, chemicals, fumes, fog, and mist can all negatively impact a person's ability to breathe. When the potential for these hazards exists, a worker must test for oxygen levels before entering.
Hazards caused by a lack of oxygen may occur if the air is displaced for gas during chemical reactions or air absorption onto steel surfaces. Some examples of chemical reactions are drying paints, curing concrete, and cleaning with acids.
Hazards occur when too much oxygen is present in the air, creating an environment susceptible to fires and explosions.
Substances used while inside a confined space during fabrication processes, such as spray painting and Welding, can cause serious health effects for individuals. Toxic sewer gases or leaks from welding torches may be present. Workers may encounter other toxic gases, including hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, and solvents, when working in confined spaces. Industrial products that can seriously harm individuals if inhaled at an elevated concentration include kerosene, petrol, paint, residues, strippers, and degreasers.
Physical hazards present in confined spaces are another safety concern. Engulfment is one of the most common ways workers can be injured or killed when working in a confined space. Through a process known as bridging, the material found inside of a confined space begins to collapse, engulfing anyone located at a lower level. Flowing liquid also has the potential to enter confined spaces, drowning those who may be inside. Other physical hazards include excessive heat, fall threats, low temperatures, slippery surfaces, low visibility, noise levels, electricity, and moving equipment.
|Farmers and Ranchers
|Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters
|Vehicle Equipment Cleaners
|Tractor-trailer Truck Drivers
According to the BLS, above are the ccupations with the most fatalities from 2011-2018
OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.146 includes the requirements for protecting workers entering a confined space. Given the significant dangers confined spaces may pose, many situations have permit requirements for workers. These spaces are called "permit-required confined spaces," and they have the following characteristics:
- A potentially hazardous environment, considering the presence of dangerous substances, high temperatures, etc.
- The presence of liquids or granular solids that could engulf a person.
- The design of the space increases the risk of entrapment or suffocation.
- Other identifiable risks or health hazards are present.
Examples of permit-required spaces are grain silos, due to their engulfment hazard and gasoline storage tanks, due to their atmospheric hazards. "Non-permit" spaces do exist; however, to be labeled as such, they must not have hazards that have the potential of causing death. An example includes crawl spaces under homes. The OSHA flow chart below provides insight into the permit decision-making process.
Before workers enter a confined space, employers must evaluate the work area and perform a risk assessment to determine whether a confined space exists and whether a permit should be required for entry. The employer must inform all workers of confined work spaces' existence, location, and associated risks. Here are some examples of risk assessment questions:
- What is the structure and layout of the area?
- Has the area been contaminated?
- Are there any other work activities being completed nearby?
- What are the contents inside the space? Are they flammable?
- Has the space been cleaned before entry is made?
When workers are required to enter the space, an employer must establish procedures, create written policies to mitigate employee risks and identify a system for authorizing and canceling permits. Workers must also receive training and instruction for working in such conditions, which we will cover next.
8-Hour Training and Certification
Before working in confined spaces, employers must provide employees with appropriate training and ensure they have the understanding and skills required to work in these spaces safely. Employers must keep training records that show the employee's name, a trainer's signature, and the training dates and keep these records readily available. By the end of the training, authorized entrants of confined spaces should know what potential hazards they may face, what appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) should be worn, and where the exit locations are, among other things.
Further training is required when:
- One's job duties change,
- The confined space permit program changes or new hazards appear, or
- An employee's job performance fails to meet standards for permit-required confined space entry.
Several training programs exist to teach workers about the dangers and safety precautions associated with confined spaces and to keep employers in compliance with OSHA regulations. These online programs allow individuals to move through training modules at their own pace, ending with a certificate of completion.
Anyone needing additional insight after training should consider reviewing the resources listed below for the OSHA and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In addition to training employees about confined spaces, OSHA requires employers to take reasonable measures to prevent non-certified employees from entering these spaces. Thus, OSHA may require a sign near the entrance that warns people of the unsafe environment. A permit-required space would have a "DANGER" sign that it is a "Permit-Required Confined Space. DO NOT ENTER." These signs should follow OSHA standards and the ANSI Z535 standard for danger signs.
Even non-permit confined spaces should have warning signs alerting employees of the potential dangers and standard procedures to be used in those areas.
Personal Protective Equipment
Working in tight quarters of confined spaces increases the need for PPE, as there is an increased risk of injury. There are hazardous gases, oxygen deficiency, and fall hazards. OSHA provides an overview of confined space PPE, breaking down all the safety gear users require, from hard hats to hearing protection and suits. In conjunction with OSHA's document, the following PPE evaluation form will help guide one's safety gear choices.
Each industry will require different types of PPE based on any unique hazards faced, but below are some of the more common ones found across multiple industries aligned to OSHA's document:
Hot temperatures are a definite concern in confined spaces. We offer cooling gear in bandanas, cooling towels, and face masks.
Low light is a common hazard, which means hi-vis gear becomes critical. And, since flammable conditions may cause combustible explosions, you should consider our hi-vis FR shirts.
Regardless of what industrial worksite you're on, even if confined spaces don't exist, you'll always need to keep your eyes protected.
Ventilated safety goggles allow airflow while shielding the wearer's eyes against airborne particles, dust, liquids, or light.
How often is confined-space training required?
- Though this training is required for affected employees, OSHA doesn't have rules for how often confined-space training must occur. Experts recommend training once or twice a year.
What defines a confined space?
1. It's big enough that a person can enter the space.
2. It's not intended for prolonged human occupancy.
3. It has limited methods to enter and exit the space.
What determines the hazards of any confined space?
- Hazards in these areas relate to the atmosphere and conditions that could result in injury or death. Examples include high temperatures, toxic chemicals, low oxygen levels, lack of ventilation, fire hazards, etc.
Is a trench box a confined space?
- A trench isn't typically considered a confined space, except when it becomes necessary for workers to enter closed spaces such as pipes, vaults, and utility holes.
What combustible gases are found in confined spaces?
- The most common explosive gas in an enclosed space is methane, which is lighter than air and will rise to the top of the chamber. Other combustible gases like propane or butane are heavier than air, sink to the bottom, and are also dangerous workplace hazards.
At MCR Safety, our purpose is clearly defined: We Protect People. We stand behind that commitment by providing users safety-related content around subject matter we know impacts their life. We hope the above has provided you with numerous answers and external resources on confined spaces, their potential hazards, and how to stay safe when working in these areas. We also hope that the next time you enter a confined space, you'll consider MCR Safety for the personal protective equipment to keep you safe on the job. From chemical protection to welding gloves to cooling gear and more, we protect people.
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