Working in confined spaces

Confined spaces are not your typical workplace; they harbour risks that go far beyond the norm. While these hazards may not be entirely unique, the confined nature of these spaces magnifies them. A simple oversight in a confined space can lead to tragic accidents with severe consequences. Embrace a flexible approach to confined space safety and create a competent and safe workplace and workforce.

What defines a confined space?

Confined spaces encompass a broad spectrum of locations, from vessels, tanks, containers, pits, to chambers, cellars, and similar enclosed spaces. What characterizes them is their potential to create conditions where accidents, harm, or injuries demand immediate emergency action. Confined spaces are areas that are not intended for regular occupation and often feature restricted access both internally and externally. The tasks performed within confined spaces can encompass various exceptional operations, including the creation of these spaces, maintenance, repairs, and routine checks.

The danger of confined spaces can be amplified by the presence of several factors, including:

  • Flammable or explosive atmospheres
  • Harmful gases, fumes, or vapours
  • Free-flowing solids or rising liquid levels
  • Excess of oxygen
  • Excessively high temperatures

Confined spaces’ risks span across various sectors, notably affecting:

  • Steel Construction: Encompassing tanks, lorries, cisterns, boilers, ships, and more.
  • Chemical Industry: Covering tanks, cisterns, reactors that have contained toxic, corrosive, flammable, or explosive substances.
  • Food Industry: Presence of gases like CO2, nitrogen and SO2
  • Transport: Including road or rail tankers, barges, ships, aircraft, etc.
  • Cleaning and Sanitation: Involving cleaning, degassing, and decontamination of tanks.
  • Welding: Especially work on metal envelopes that have housed flammable materials or inside poorly ventilated spaces.
  • Servicing/Maintenance: Pertaining to tasks both on or inside tanks using metal tools like moulds, spanners, and drills, for assembly, dismantling, and modifications to installations such as industrial boilers.

Hazards of Confined Spaces

The unique configuration of confined spaces renders them particularly perilous for workers, primarily due to:

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Difficult Access:

Limited entry points

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Narrow or Cramped Dimensions:

Little room to manoeuvre.

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Unpredictable Atmospheres:

Hazards like gases or low oxygen can change unpredictably.

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Poor Ventilation:

Limited airflow can lead to toxic gas buildup.

The nature of risks varies based on the technical characteristics of the space, the specific work to be performed, and the substances present. Among the most prevalent risks are:

  • Asphyxiation and Anoxia: Leading to symptoms like headaches and loss of consciousness.
  • Intoxication: Resulting from inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact with toxic substances.
  • Electrocution, Fire, and Explosion: Triggered by the release of gases, excessive heat, or electrical faults.
  • Falls: Especially when safety harnesses are not worn.
  • Landslide and Burial: Presenting grave dangers.
  • Drowning: Occurring in case of sudden water level rises.
  • Burns: Resulting from leaks of chemicals or hot water from pipes.
  • Hearing Risks: Due to sound amplification within confined spaces.
  • Thermal Risks: Involving extreme temperatures.
  • Unpredictable Risks: Particularly the risk of “over-accidents” if workers panic in dangerous situations.

Preventive Measures

It is the employer’s responsibility to be aware of the hazards associated with the activity. Work in confined spaces must form part of the overall prevention approach applied within the company. When these operations are recurrent, they should be organised in advance. To mitigate confined space hazards, a holistic approach to prevention is imperative. Consider implementing the following preventive measures:

Risk Identification:

Thoroughly assess the specific risks inherent to the confined space.

Specific Safety Instructions:

Develop detailed guidelines tailored to the unique hazards of each confined space.

Intervention and Emergency Procedures:

Outline comprehensive procedures for safe entry and exit, including emergency response protocols.each confined space.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE):

Equip workers with appropriate PPE, including respiratory protection, fall protection gear, and specialized equipment.

Fire Safety Plan:

Establish a fire safety plan addressing potential fire risks within confined spaces.

Employee Training:

Train employees comprehensively on confined space hazards, procedures, and safe work practices.

Employees themselves bear the primary responsibility for their health and safety. This underscores the critical importance of training, especially for new employees who constitute a significant proportion of workplace injuries and accidents.

In the realm of confined spaces, there is no room for complacency. It is paramount to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to confined space hazards. Every job and environment must be meticulously examined. Remember, when it comes to confined spaces, knowledge is power, and preparation is your greatest ally. By prioritizing safety measures, continuous training, and vigilance, you can significantly reduce the risks associated with confined spaces and contribute to a safer working environment for everyone involved.

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