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Entering a confined space is an event. It’s not something you do on a whim, and it requires planning, special equipment, additional team members, a rescue plan, and more.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the basics. When we say confined space, we are talking about a small or tight area not designed to be occupied by people but is large enough for a worker to enter if needed. OSHA further adds that confined spaces have limited entry or exit points.
Examples include but are not limited to manholes, utility vaults, sewers, pipelines, tanks, and silos. Also, by definition, a crawl space under a house is considered a confined space.
There are many different reasons and different types of work that might require confined space entry. Regardless of the trade, workers must take specific precautions before entering, depending on the circumstances. The process can take weeks of advanced preparation.
Confined Space Entry Preparation
The preparation work is the part of the process that might require extra time and why your planning needs to begin weeks in advance. To break this down into the simplest terms, you’ve got two points you need to prepare.
The first point is the confined space itself. You need to know as much as possible about this space and its hazards.
The second point is the worker(s) that need to enter the confined space and the support team outside of the confined space. Specifically, are they fully trained for confined space entry? Also, do they have access to all the necessary equipment and rescue/emergency resources?
Earlier, when we gave examples that fit the definition of confined spaces, we included an under-house crawl space. You aren’t required to have a permit to enter the crawl space under your house, but a permit is required to enter an underground sewer line through a manhole.
The difference here is the presents of hazards. Per OSHA, any confined space that presents or has the potential to present a hazardous atmosphere, dangerous material, or risk entrapping a worker is considered a "permit-required confined space." If no hazards are reasonably possible or present, the space is regarded as a "non-permit confined space."
Both types of spaces require caution when entering, but a permit-required confined space is required by law to follow specific procedures.
First, before there are any plans of having a worker enter the confined space, the employer must establish a Confined Space Entry Permit Program. The program coordinator will authorize a confined space entry by awarding permits. The permit should list a specific procedure for workers to follow before and while entering the confined space.
The program coordinator will need to document all relevant information regarding the worker entering the confined space. This includes specific entry and exit times, work conducted, pre-entry checks, a list of equipment used, emergency plans in place, and anything else considered necessary. Lack of proper procedure and documentation can result in severe OSHA violation fines.
The training prepares workers to assess hazards quickly and effectively and how to properly communicate the hazards to team members.
The training also covers properly operating equipment such as gas detectors, winches, davits, and fall protection gear.
The entrant and the attendant will be trained on emergency procedures if something goes wrong. It's important to note that emergency response for confined space accidents is different from normal accidents and requires specially trained first responders.
Equipment and Gear
Now that everyone is trained and we have a permitting process in place, it’s time to gear up for the job. Different jobs require different tools and equipment, but specific equipment is used across the board for most confined space entry work.
Gas monitors and accessories are a must-have. Hazardous atmospheres are one of the main concerns with confined spaces. A tight unventilated space with toxic gases will knock out a worker before they realize something is wrong. There are dozens of stories of workers becoming incapacitated due to the hazardous atmosphere, and out of instinct, the attendant goes in after them and also becomes incapacitated. Then an untrained first responder goes in to rescue them both and also becomes incapacitated.
These stories often end in fatality.
Each worker should wear a gas monitor designed for continuous monitoring, and the attendant should have a monitor with an air pump and a hose to test the confined space before any of the workers enter. This is known as a pre-entry test, and it is essential to take the time to do it correctly.
Ventilation blowers are a common way to get fresh air into a confined space or extract hazardous air out of a confined space. They are made up of a simple two-part design, a blower, and a reinforced duct. The crew inside the confined space relies on a blower to ventilate the air. It is part of the attendant's duty to monitor the blower and ensure proper operation. If the blower malfunctions or the fresh air is contaminated, the workers in the confined space are at risk. This can happen if an idling car or a generator is emitting exhaust near the blower's inlet.
Tripods and winches are used when a worker lowers into a confined space from above, such as a manhole. The tripod is set up over the entrance, and one or multiple winches are attached to the tripod.
The primary purpose of these tools is to safely allow the worker to enter the confined space by their own power (ladder) or by being lowered by the winch. The winches have a built-in safety mechanism that auto-locks if the worker falls. If the worker requires extraction, the attendant can use the crank handle on the winch to lift the worker out of the confined space.
Davit Confined Space Systems can be used in place of a tripod when entering a confined space that a tripod cannot accommodate. When entering a confined space with an opening too large or complex for a tripod to be placed over, a davit system can be set up adjacent to the entrance and operates using the same attachable winches.
Fall Protection Harness works directly with the tripod and winch system. The worker wears the harness, and the winch will connect to the D ring on the worker's back. The harness is designed to distribute forces evenly, and features fall protection shock absorbers to help prevent injury in the event of a fall. Always ensure your harness hasn't expired.
Perimeter protection is something that can be easily forgotten but is very important. It would be easy for a pedestrian or cyclist who isn't paying attention to accidentally fall into the open manhole. Perimeter protection like manhole guard rails or rail kits prevent accidents like this while the attendant is concentrating on the status of the entrants.
Additional PPE that may be required depending on the job include safety helmets, gloves, safety glasses, respirators, dielectric gear, or other common personal protective equipment options.
Now you've got your permit, completed your training, got all the equipment, and the last thing you need to do before anyone enters the confined space is a series of pre-entry checks.
As mentioned before, a pre-entry atmosphere check needs to be conducted with a gas monitor that has an air pump and hose. The hose is lowered to the bottom of the confined space. The hose is kept there long enough for air to travel the entire length of the hose and pass the sensor. The rule of thumb is 2-3 seconds per foot of hose plus 30 seconds for the sensor to get a reading. After the reading is complete, the hose is pulled up four feet, and the test is repeated. You repeat the test every four feet until the hose is entirely out.
Next, all of the equipment needs to be inspected. Starting with the tripod or davit, you begin by conducting a visual test, checking to see if there are any dents or damage. Then check to make sure all of the mechanisms are in working order, including the leg locks and the pulley system. If there are any signs of an issue, the tripod must be taken out of service.
Next, you will inspect the winches. You'll want to check that they attach securely to the tripod or davit, check that the braking system works and that there is no visible damage to the line, clip, or housing. Winches are challenging to give a full inspection while in the field, so it is good practice to have the winches fully inspected once every few months by someone who will pull out and check the entire line.
Lastly, you are required to examine the safety harness. You want to check all around the web straps, bending and twisting as you go to reveal any loose fibers or cut corners. Then check that all the hardware is undamaged and that all the buckles and clips are in working order.
When all the inspections are completed, double-check the permit to see if anything has been missed. If not, you are good to enter.
Ready to Enter the Confined Space
It’s a long process, but you are finally ready to enter the confined space. Ideally, everything goes as planned. Workers go in, the work is completed, workers come out, and the job is considered a success.
If something does go wrong, entrants can rely on the comprehensive training of the attendant and rescue team to get them out of the space quickly and safely. And the attendant and rescue crew can depend on the entrant to stay aware of hazards and adequately communicate any issues that arise.
PowerPak offers various products, signage, and safety equipment for confined space entry. If you have questions or need products for your confined space entry, contact us or visit our website at PowerPak.net.