When it comes to employee working conditions, extra precautions must be taken to ensure the safety of those spending time in confined spaces — as is the case with other potentially dangerous situations.
Whether one is the owner of a construction or cleaning company, his or her employees will most likely find themselves often working in spaces defined by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration as "confined," some of which are "permit-required." Examples of confined spaces include silos, storage bins and vaults, while those like storage tanks, sewer entryways and even meat rendering plants are typically classified as confined permit-required spaces, among others.
Regardless of whether a permit is required to work in confined spaces, employers also need to provide employees with the tools necessary to keep themselves safe, such as proper training and equipment. After all, employees do have a legal right to working conditions that do not pose a "risk of serious harm," per OSHA; workers should also stay abreast of other rights guaranteed under law.
Here are several steps and some associated tips employers can follow to guarantee that any jobs involving workers in confined spaces are carried out safely, efficiently and in accordance with U.S. laws and regulations:
Determine if space is permit-required
If a work space meets the definition of a confined space (a small area not designed for people, especially with regards to continuous occupancy and having restricted means for entry or exit), an employer needs to then figure out if it requires any permits, including one for entry.
According to OSHA, a permit-required space is defined by at least one of the following characteristics:
- Contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere
- Contains material(s) that can engulf an occupant
- Walls that converge inward or floors sloping downward into a smaller area with the potential to trap and suffocate a worker
- Any other recognized safety hazard
According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, potential dangers associated with confined spaces that workers should be prepared to safely deal with include: poor air quality due to the presence of asphyxiants displacing oxygen, fire or explosion hazard, physical hazards like live wiring or moving machinery, material shifting or collapse and bio hazards.
Procure the proper safety tools for the job
In order to find out if a confined space is permit-required for employees to enter, one must first find the proper equipment and tools necessary to monitor and keep the area safe. Obvious examples include collapse prevention materials for workers digging a deep open trench, or respirators, protective gear and mechanical ventilators for workers who clean out chemical vats.
Providing workers with the correct safety equipment is easy enough, but only after potential risks
have first been identified: this often requires the use of further testing and monitoring tools. Atmospheric and gas testing for any asphyxiants, chemicals or surplus or depleted oxygen levels
can help an employer quickly determine if a work site requires a permit.
In one example on its website, OSHA lists detector tubs, alarm only gas monitors and explosion meters as acceptable forms of permit-required atmospheric monitoring equipment. Another comprehensive testing tool includes a multi gas monitor (for example, four-gas), which can detect oxygen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and any flammable gases.
Workers must also be provided with the tools necessary to carry out any safety-related procedures — whether precautionary or in the event of an emergency that requires evacuation. These could range from a wrench to close off valves, to a machine that carries out forced air ventilation.
Worker safety training and procedures
Regardless of what duties have been delegated to employees working either alone or in teams in a confined space, all personnel should undergo training to become familiarized with any safety, evacuation, escape or rescue plans. The details of any certifications required to work in a confined space should also be reviewed, including any specified entry procedures that must be followed.
Worker training should also be implemented for those who will be responsible for overseeing any engineering, administrative controls, or importantly, the upkeep and repair of personal protective equipment like hard hats, respirators masks or flame-retardant clothing. For example, atmospheric safety testing for harmful gases and other contaminants must be carried out by a lead worker who has completed detector training for any one type of monitor in use.
Even though all pipes and lines that lead to a confined space that carry a substance that could potentially engulf workers must be disconnected by law, training related to any further shutoff measures are also recommended. Sources of electrical current must also be isolated and locked out prior to other workers' entry.
Employers looking to assess the status of any confined spaces in which their employees are set to work can look no further than ProcessMAP's comprehensive and configurable confined space assessment service, which offers a mobile application for online and offline usage.