Being a boiler repair and mechanical maintenance company, we spend a fair amount of our time in tight spaces. Often times these spaces are defined as “confined spaces” and may require permits or additional safety measures. So, what exactly makes something a confined space and when do you need permits to operate in one?
Confined spaces are:
Areas that are not designed for prolonged occupation but are large enough for people to enter, and also have restricted entry and exit points.
There are two major reasons this definition is important to know. First, it helps differentiate between “tight spaces” and spaces that may require a permit. Second, when something goes wrong in a confined space, it is significantly harder to rescue the person. Couple that with the fact that these spaces are naturally higher risk areas and you have a recipe for disaster. The most common type of confined spaces we see are:
- Utility Vaults
- Sewers Systems
- Cold Storage
- HVAC Duct Work
- Storage Tanks
- Process Vessels
- Air Handling Units
- Cooling Towers
Permit Required Confined Spaces (PRCS)
So do all confined spaces require a permit? The answer to that is no. Permit required confined spaces (PRCS) are defined by regulatory bodies. They may vary from area to area but OSHA’s definition includes the following:
“…contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere. Contains material that has the potential to engulf an entrant. Has walls that converge inward or floors that slope downward and taper into a smaller area which could trap or asphyxiate an entrant. Contains any other recognized safety or health hazard, such as unguarded machinery, exposed live wires, or heat stress.”
Before any employee enters a confined space, it is important that they think through this definition. It is also vitally important that employees go through the proper training to ensure they understand what risks to look for. They should be trained on how to address issues should they arise.
Dangers To Consider
Before entering a confined space consider the following:
1. Air Quality: is there access to enough oxygen in the space to breath? Are pollutants present that pose a risk to the lungs with prolonged exposure?
2. Hazardous Substances: Are there substances in the confined space that you need protection from like chemicals or gases. Is there concern for biological hazards like viruses, feces, fungus or other?
3. Physical Danger: Are there physical hazards such as loud noises, radiation, vibration, electricity, low visibility or other?
4. Flame Or Explosion Risk: Are there combustible materials present that could lead to an explosion or light fire?
5. Collapse or Failure Risk: Is the space structurally sound? Is there a chance for shifting or failure following the activity in the space?
Confined Space Safety Equipment
While understanding the basics of what to look for is a great starting place, you also may need the right tools to stay safe. Accessing the environment and wearing protective gear should be part of your confined space entry plan. Some common equipment that is used is:
- Gas Monitor – This helps determine atmospheric conditions. This may include catalytic diffusion, electrochemical, or infrared monitors.
- Blower and Ducting – This allows for increases ventilation of a space
- Tri-Pod Rescue System – should something happen to an employee in the space this allows for easier evacuation.
- Fall Protection Harness – this is used to secure you to the rescue system.
- Radio Systems – Used to allow for easy communication
Confined Space Programs
Elements of a good entry program include:
- A written document that contains all below procedures
- A list of permit-required confined spaces and how to determine potential hazards.
- Roles and responsibilities for confined space entry. Including for those entering, supervisors and attendants.
- Signage requirements and how to prevent unauthorized access
- Equipment requirements for hazard detection as well as for general confined space safety.
- Entry rescue plans and emergency protocol
- Responsibilities of contractors
- Employee training plan
- Audit and inspections of the program
A good “fill in the blank” entry program is available from Shortline Safety Here.
A Toxic Environment
With over a million workers entering confined spaces every day according to OSHA, safety needs to be a priority. Proper training, equipment and procedures can help prevent accidents.
“In spite of all safety regulations and precautions, almost 500 deaths occurred in confined spaces during the past five years. Seventy-five percent of these deaths involved skilled workers who were cleaning, repairing, or performing routine maintenance. Oxygen deficiency, chemical exposure, entrapment, and engulfment were the leading causes.” – Occupational Health and Safety
Use this article as a guide to keep you and your employees safe. As always, be sure to follow all local, state and federal guidelines.