10 ways to reduce accidents when working in a confined space
Beyond the actual work to be done which can present its own problems where health and safety are concerned, when one adds working within a confined space into the mix, those risks become even more prevalent. As a consequence, when working in a confined space, extra caution has to be taken. You will find the Commodious course on Confined Spaces particularly informative and helpful.
Two triggers together make a work area a confined space:
- Is the access substantially confined, e.g., by ladders, ducts, etc.
- Are one or more the five proscribed hazards – fire, heat, gas or free-flowing solids or liquids – present?
Working in confined spaces - regulations
The laws in the UK surrounding working in a confined space involve both the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 in general terms, and the Confined Spaces Regulations 1997 in specific terms. However, like most tasks, it will pay to adopt certain policies when a task potentially involves working within a confined space. We use the word ‘potentially’ advisedly, as you will discover when you read the second recommendation below.
How to reduce risks of an accident in a confined workspace
- Carry out a risk assessment – Depending on the nature of your work, much of what you do may be repetitive and therefore risk assessments may not be necessary. However, for many of us, no two tasks are exactly the same. In such a situation, a risk assessment becomes essential. This should be carried out by someone with a good level of experience of working in a confined space and should identify not just obvious and existing risks, but also the potential for possible risks as the work progresses. An example of the latter would be the potential for a build up of noxious fumes if there is no clear escape for them during welding work.
- Check if the work could be done ‘externally’ – by this, we do not mean doing the actual work from outside the confined space. Instead, what we mean is whether there is a possibility the work could be done remotely using equipment sited within the confined space, but that equipment is operated ‘remotely’ by someone outside the space. For example, the sarcophagus built to ‘entomb Reactor Number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine uses externally operated robots to perform internal maintenance and repairs as the build-up of nuclear radiation within the confined space is dangerously high for all but a very short period of exposure.
- Don’t work alone if it can be avoided – Working in a confined space can and will increase the likelihood of an accident. The severity of that accident, and any outcome, will be heavily influenced by whether or not you are working alone. In many instances, the confined space is only big enough for one worker, so there should be someone ‘on the outside’ who is monitoring what is going on and making regular checks with the person doing the work that everything is okay. If you'd like to learn more about lone working condier taking our online lone working course.
- Ensure you are the ‘right build’ for the task and for the space you will be working in – We all come in differing shapes and sizes and therefore, some of us are a better ‘fit’ for certain tasks. As an example, accessing a storage tank through an inspection hatch will be easier for someone who is 5’9” in height and who weighs ten stone as opposed to someone who is 6’3” tall and who weighs twenty stone. It should be noted that the laws relating to discrimination in the workplace. It should be noted that employers can employ someone for a specific task based on their physical attributes without falling foul of the Equality Act 2010 and there is currently no legislation in the UK that covers discrimination based on a person’s size.
- Make sure you have the correct PPE if necessary – Personal protection equipment (PPE) should be used at all times where appropriate. There is a temptation for workers who are operating in confined spaces to discard various items of PPE simply because they make the wearer/user uncomfortable, and the PPE makes doing the work required more difficult. For example, a worker may prefer to wear a simple cloth face mask when cleaning out a flour storage tank as it is cooler to wear and makes visibility better than a full-face ventilator mask with high-grade carbon filters.
- Assess if any modifications can be made to the workspace – When cost is factored into a budget for a project, there are occasions when safety can be accidentally compromised. This can often be the case where working in a confined space is concerned as the desire is to get the work done as quickly as possible and at minimum cost tend to act as blinkers to alternative proposals. Alterations to an existing site can frequently be less drastic a solution than may initially be perceived, primarily because any modifications made can usually be ‘undone’ once the work has been completed. This could be the widening of an access hatch, the creation of an additional source of ventilation, or creating a new outlet for waste materials when doing a cleaning task.
- Set up a clear means of communication – When working in a confined space, two-way communication with someone outside the space is critical. Not only is that person there to react in the event there is an emergency, and you report that you are having difficulties, but they are there to check on you as well. You should set up a system of creating status updates every few minutes, that timing depending heavily on the nature of the work being done.
- Establish an emergency protocol – While it has been pointed out that a someone working in a confined space should not be working alone and that a good two-way communication channel be opened, it is also important to put in place a protocol in the event that there is an emergency. A tragic example of where such a protocol was lacking was in the death of two men in the confined space of a tanker of pig food. One man entered the tanker to unblock a pump, but was overcome with toxic fumes. A colleague who entered the tank to rescue him was also overtaken by the fumes and both men ‘drowned’ in the liquid feed.
The business owners were both jailed, and the company was fined £2 million for breaches in health and safety. In this instance, there was no emergency protocol or any measures taken to minimise the dangers. Had the first employee worn a safety harness and the second employee been responsible for controlling an attached safety rope, the second worker could have pulled him to safety when the first worker became overcome by the fumes in the tank.
- Choose the right equipment for the job and also the space available – Depending on the nature of the work involved, the obvious choice of equipment may not always be the best when working in a confined space. For example, if you are working in an environment where there are toxic fumes, you may find that you have to wear breathing apparatus to provide you with a constant air supply. The obvious choice is a breathing apparatus that resembles scuba diving equipment, minus the flippers and wet suit! However, this is bulky by necessity of design, and that can severely hamper free movement and create additional risk in the event of an emergency and the need to evacuate the confined space in a hurry. A more sensible alternative would be to use inline breathing equipment whereby the air supply to the mouthpiece would come from an air source outside the confined space through a lengthy hose.
- Disable any machinery or plant to avoid accidental use – It goes without saying that when working in a confined space in, say, a sewer, you don’t want to get caught up in a torrent of discharged waste. If you’re in a grain silo, you don’t want to find yourself getting buried alive in grains of wheat. If you are working inside an industrial meat grinder, you don’t want someone to come along and begin operating it. You should ensure that any equipment that could be used and which would subsequently endanger your life should be made inoperable. This can be done in a number of ways, from not just switching off an electricity supply, but the removal of a fuse. The other precaution to take is to stick notices to switches and operating panels warning not to use them as work is in progress. It will always pay to let any site supervisor know what you are up to as a means of extra reassurance that equipment won’t be used while you are working.
Often it is not sufficient to simply rely on health and safety regulations to ensure that the working environment you find yourself in is one which is safe. This is especially so where working in confined spaces is concerned. It will always pay to take additional safety measures to minimise any risk involved. Additionally, our article on Understanding how accidents can be caused when working in confined spaces will help you better understand why certain safe practices for working in a confined space are so effective.
Here at Commodious we specialise in providing online courses that cover many aspects of Health & Safety. If you would like to learn more about any of these, please feel free to get in contact with us.