November 2010, Vol. 22, No.11

Safety Corner

Confined-space concerns

Shawna Gill and Phil Andrews


Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to risk management. The areas with the highest risk concerns include all locations that have confined-space considerations. Knowing the hazards and understanding how to address each will best prepare workers to safely approach each facility task.

The U.S. Occupational and Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) define a confined space as an area large enough and configured so that an employee can enter, that has limited or restricted means for entry or exit, and that is not designed for continuous employee occupancy. Additional requirements of a confined space include the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere, the presence of a material that could engulf an entrant, an internal configuration that could trap or asphyxiate, and the presence of any other recognized serious safety or health hazards.

Confined spaces present many unique and serious challenges that every operator and manager needs to understand and prepare for.


Breathing easier

Whether an atmosphere is hazardous has to be determined before entering a space. Testing and adequate ventilation are necessary from the time of entry to (and including) exit to provide maximum safety. Using a self-contained breathing apparatus may be necessary to ensure safety.

A lack of oxygen is one of the main considerations of confined-space entry. Oxygen deficiency symptoms to consider are memory loss, poor judgment, inattentiveness, and loss of motor coordination — any of which could render a person unable to assist or complete a job or even exit under his or her own power. Personal assessment and communication among entrants into a confined space is essential. Deterioration of any one occupant can quickly lead to an emergency situation.

Typically, in confined spaces at wastewater treatment plants, the true problem is not a lack of oxygen so much as the presence of other gases that prevent our lungs from using the oxygen present. The big three are hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, and methane.

Also, toxic, corrosive, or irritating chemicals can cause burning of the eyes, skin, nose, and mouth. These chemicals also could lead to asphyxiation. Eye protection, proper clothing, gloves, and a mask may be necessary. Tagging out valves to prevent flow of gases or liquids is vital.

Even heavy dust on the floor, when stirred up, can reduce visibility or cause oxygen deficiency and suffocation. Construction areas are especially prone to entrapment from loose debris.


Maintaining safety

Fire and explosion risks also have to be addressed in confined spaces. Many of the hazardous gases mentioned above also are flammable. When working in a confined space, energy sources, such as cigarette lighters, torches, cell phones, motors, hand tools, and other sparking equipment, must be properly secured and isolated. Unexpected sparks could ignite a gas. Inattention to an electrical line could pose an electrocution danger. All welding should follow OSHA protocol for hot work. Only trained personnel should perform this work.

Likewise, an unsecured mechanical device, such as a valve or tank cover, could allow gas or fluid to flow into the space. Lockout–tagout procedures should be applied when the equipment is not operating. If the equipment must be operating, maintain a safe distance and use as many safety checks as possible.


Staying comfortable

Ambient temperature and humidity also must be taken into consideration when working in a confined space. Humidity will intensify extreme temperature concerns and may cause difficulty breathing. Temperature extremes may cause difficulty breathing, fatigue, and disorientation.

Hypothermia and heat stroke are entirely preventable. Dress accordingly and take into consideration gear weight (personal protective equipment) and exertion requirements, as these will increase the physical demands required to do even minor tasks in a confined area. Stay out of the sun and wear sun protection, including sunscreen, eye protection, and a hat.

Maintain adequate hydration to prevent both hypothermia and hyperthermia. Personnel should drink at least half of the recommended daily fluid intake — at least four 8-oz. glasses of water — before entry. Having water available in the confined-space area or providing regular resting periods in which to rehydrate is equally important. Additionally, no more than two 8-oz. drinks, such as soda, coffee, fruit drinks, or tea, should be ingested prior to entry. Caffeinated coffee, tea, and some soda drinks act as diuretics, which encourage water loss. If you are thirsty, you are dehydrated; stop and get a drink.


Maintaining tools

Other physical hazards include rain, snow, cold, and falling. Clothing, shoes, personal protective equipment, and the proper number of staff for a job must be allocated to help minimize risk. The most common considerations for ensuring a low-risk scenario include fall protection measures, such as harness use, hard hats, gloves, mats to cover water, removal of other slip and fall hazards, and proper clothing and footwear.

How you move equipment into and out of confined spaces also must be considered. Carrying items in your hands as you enter a small access hatch or other area that requires climbing down or up a ladder should be avoided. Both hands should be available when ascending or descending a ladder. Use a backpack or a hoist to deliver equipment.

Also note that any item carried into a confined space or other area where significant effort is required should be checked and verified to be in good working order. Likewise, cleaning, maintenance, and testing of personal protective equipment should be documented.


Keeping fit

Understanding the physical conditions of staff members also can help reduce risk. The staff’s mental and physical responsiveness is paramount for success for most confined-space tasks with low or high risk concerns. Regular professional staff evaluation for physical and mental health should be included in all facility risk management protocols.

Pre-employment health screenings are an important risk management tool. Considerations of physical strength and agility, past musculoskeletal injuries, skin disorders, obesity, asthma, diabetes, stroke, and medications with side effects causing potential toward loss of motor control or mental acuity, hearing, and vision baselines are only a few conditions that should be addressed. Blood tests should include liver and kidney function to establish a baseline to compare all future regular health screenings.

All employees who have exposure and safety risk tasks should, at a minimum, have a yearly health screening. Short- and long-term exposure symptoms and signs should be monitored for occupationally induced disease. Immunization records, as well as prescription and nonprescription drugs used, should be evaluated by the health-care professional; interactions and potential side effects that can place a person at risk should be understood by the health-care provider to discuss with employees and applicants. For instance, diuretics can cause dehydration, which may quicken the negative effects of excessive temperatures or humidity.


Encouraging communication

Proper training and education on known risks will encourage daily self-evaluation to ensure that management and staff have safety as a priority. Staff whose job descriptions include higher risk should be encouraged to offer concern for their daily status, as it may put co-workers at risk.

It is imperative that communication is encouraged with honest dialogue. Confined-space entry for the highest-risk events has many potential dangers that all occupants and support staff must be prepared for. If there is physical or mental impairment due to alcohol consumption, drugs (prescription or other), lack of sleep, or emotional distress, the affected team member has to be responsible to the team and opt out of that day’s responsibilities — without reprisal. Over-the-counter medications or the late-night crying of a new baby over a period of nights may lead to some impairment, which may only be noticed by the participant. Team members must be responsible to know their condition and be willing to protect themselves and others by relating any concerns that might put others or themselves at risk. (Moderate or excessive alcohol consumption can lead to dehydration that can last for days, which may increase the risk of excessive temperature exposure symptoms.)

Attitude, attention to detail, ability to follow rules, responsiveness, and personal responsibility are attributes best suited for those whose tasks include higher risk. Trust and confidence are necessary for all parties when attempting to minimize risk, not to mention when risking their lives to get the job done.


Understanding confined-space entry

Confined spaces intensify the risks that operators already face daily. This means the precautions and training also have to be more intense. Education, training, and planning remain instrumental to promoting safety and preventing avoidable injuries.

Risk management also should include the option of eliminating or reducing the need of personnel to perform tasks that have a high frequency or higher risk. Vulnerability to both personnel and the facility should be considered in the risk assessment; postponing work to avoid the most dangerous situations must be an option, when possible.


Shawna Gill is chief executive officer of Inc. (Beaverton, Ore.). Phil Andrews is engineering and sales support for the company.


© 2010 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.