In this article
Some occupations require work in confined spaces. Whilst it may seem a simple task, it can be dangerous for workers if it is not properly planned, assessed and controlled.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE):
- A number of people are killed or seriously injured in the UK each year in confined spaces. Approximately 15 workers die every year as a result of confined space accidents.
- Accidents happen in a wide range of industries, from those involving complex plant to simple storage vessels.
- Those killed include people working in the confined space and those trying to rescue them without proper training and equipment.
Things can and do go wrong when working in confined spaces. An emergency situation can quickly arise, which can expose workers to serious and imminent dangers. Therefore, employers must have emergency procedures and rescue plans in place to get workers out of the confined space as quickly and as safely as possible.
If there are no emergency procedures and rescue plans or suitable equipment for rescue, this can lead to costly delays. It can even put other workers’ lives at risk if they enter the confined space. In an emergency, every second really does count.
This article will look at what confined spaces are, including some of the risks workers can face. It will also cover the need for emergency procedures and what a rescue plan should cover.
What is working in confined spaces?
What is a confined space?
For an area to be a confined space, it must meet particular criteria under the Confined Spaces Regulations 1997.
It is classed as a confined space if:
- It is substantially (though not always entirely) enclosed.
- There are one or more specified risks present, or it’s reasonably foreseeable that they could be present.
Confined spaces possess certain features that can make them hazardous.
These features can include:
- Enclosed – Usually enclosed on all sides.
- Small – Usually small.
- Difficult to work in – Due to the size and conditions within the space.
- Difficult access and egress – Hard to get in and out.
- Not a permanent workplace – Places where workers do not work frequently.
Some confined spaces are more obvious than others. Some can even become a confined space due to the nature of the work and the hazards present, e.g. fumes created by welding.
Examples of confined spaces
- Vehicle and machine interiors.
- Freight containers.
- Storage tanks.
- Rooms with little or no ventilation.
What jobs require confined space work?
Confined space entry may be necessary for most industries at some point in time. However, there are some industries and occupations that are more likely to encounter confined space work.
Some examples of these are:
- Sewage workers – Entering and working in sewers or drains.
- Construction workers – Working in trenches, deep excavations and crawl spaces.
- Miners – Working in mines underground with coal dust and gases.
- Transport workers – Entering and working in fuel tankers, aircraft fuel tanks, and ship holds.
- Maintenance workers – Will come across a range of confined spaces, which will depend on the industry in which they work.
- Agricultural workers – Entering and working in grain silos and slurry tanks on farms.
- Energy and utility workers – Entering various confined spaces to access services.
Hazards and risks associated with confined spaces
Confined spaces are high risk, as hazards can arise from:
- The confined space itself.
- The work carried out.
- Any hazardous substances used.
Some examples of confined space hazards are:
- Oxygen deficiency (a lack of oxygen).
- Oxygen enrichment (too much oxygen).
- Toxic atmosphere (poisonous gas, fume and vapour).
- Dust, e.g. flour.
- Explosive and flammable atmosphere.
- Excess heat leading to dangerous rises in body temperature.
- Liquid entering the space or being present.
- Free-flowing solid materials that can enter the space, e.g. grain.
- Other hazards, such as noise, the collapse of the space structure and electricity.
A space is classed as a confined space if there are one or more specified risks present or the risks are reasonably foreseeable.
These risks include:
- A fire or an explosion, which would cause a risk of serious injury.
- Drowning from an increase in the level of a liquid entering the space.
- Loss of consciousness as a result of an increase in body temperature.
- Loss of consciousness or asphyxiation (deprivation of oxygen) from exposure to gas, fume, vapour, or lack of oxygen in the space.
- Asphyxiation from a free-flowing solid entering the space.
It would only take a matter of minutes for one or more of these specified risks to cause serious injury or death.
The HSE’s guide to working safely in confined spaces has further information on the risks.
Confined space emergencies
The type of confined space emergencies will depend on the task, the hazards in the confined space and the equipment used.
Some examples of emergencies can include:
- A worker has an accident and is injured, and they cannot get themselves out of the space without assistance.
- A worker becomes unconscious due to:
– Exposure to hazardous fumes, gases or vapour.
– Heat stress.
– Oxygen depletion.
- A worker falls ill, e.g. heart attack, and becomes unconscious.
- The atmosphere changes in the space and workers need to get out quickly, e.g. a gas detector alarm sounds.
- A fire or explosion occurs, and workers need to get out of the space quickly.
The risk assessment for confined space entry and work should cover all foreseeable emergency scenarios.
Emergency arrangements are a legal requirement under Regulation 5 of the Confined Spaces Regulations 1997.
No one should enter or carry out work in a confined space unless there is:
- Suitable and sufficient emergency rescue arrangements appropriate for the level of risk.
- Provision for removing workers from the confined space in an emergency.
- Provision for first-aid equipment (including resuscitation equipment) where the need can be foreseen. It includes the maintenance of such equipment.
- A reduction in the risks, so far as is reasonably practicable, to those involved in rescue operations.
It doesn’t matter if the emergency results from a specified risk or not. The regulations still require emergency arrangements to be in place, e.g. if a worker became unconscious due to ill health or was injured in a fall, it should be included.
The emergency arrangements required will depend on:
- The type and nature of the confined space.
- The hazards and risks identified in the risk assessment.
- The likely nature of an emergency rescue.
- The type of foreseeable emergencies.
A rescue plan is a fundamental part of confined space entry planning. Without it, how will people know how to respond if a worker is stuck in a confined space, and what equipment will they use to get them out? If there is no plan, this could make the situation worse.
It could also be life-threatening if there is a significant delay in emergency response or if fellow workers carry out the rescue without appropriate equipment and training.
Rescue plans can be generic or specific. The type required will depend on the complexity of the rescue from the confined space and the anticipated emergency. A generic plan will not be sufficient for more complex situations. Therefore, rescue plans must contain enough information to execute a safe rescue.
There are three main types of rescue:
- Self-rescue – A worker can get themselves out of the confined space, e.g. by using self-contained emergency breathing apparatus.
- Non-entry rescue – A worker is rescued by a trained team who don’t need to enter the confined space, e.g. the worker is winched out by a tripod and lifeline.
- Entry rescue – A rescuer or team enters the confined space to retrieve the worker, e.g. in a complex confined space where it isn’t just a vertical entry.
The above is a sort of hierarchy, with self-rescue being the best option. It is the best option, as it doesn’t put anyone else at risk, and it is a quicker form of rescue. Entry rescue should be the last option, as it puts other people at risk and exposes them to the hazards in the confined space.
What to include in a rescue plan?
According to the Approved Code of Practice, for arrangements for rescue and resuscitation to be suitable and sufficient, they should cover:
- Resuscitation and rescue equipment.
- Raising the alarm and rescue.
- Safeguarding rescuers.
- Fire safety.
- Controlling plant.
- First aid.
- Public emergency services.
Employers and those in control of the confined space work can use these headings when putting together their rescue plans.
Resuscitation and rescue equipment
- The emergency rescue arrangements should include the need for any rescue equipment, which will be based on the findings of the risk assessment. Examples of rescue equipment are lifelines, safety harnesses, lifting equipment and self-rescue emergency breathing apparatus.
- Resuscitation equipment and additional first-aid equipment may also be required, e.g. a defibrillator.
- Anyone who uses resuscitation and rescue equipment must have had appropriate training. They should also be trained in relevant resuscitation and first-aid procedures.
- The equipment must be maintained and available for immediate use when required.
Raising the alarm and rescue
- If there is an emergency in a confined space, there needs to be a reliable method of raising the alarm so workers inside can inform those outside that they need help. Methods can include radios, air horns, tugging on a rope and personal alarms.
- Communication systems must be maintained and tested regularly to ensure they are functioning properly.
- The emergency rescue arrangements need to consider calling for assistance during unsocial working hours such as night shifts, weekends and holidays.
- It is not just people in the confined space at risk. It is also the people who have the role of rescuing them in an emergency. There have been multiple fatalities where people have tried to retrieve someone from a confined space, e.g. rescuers overcome by the same hazard.
- The emergency arrangements need to reduce the risks to the people who have a role in the rescue, and rescuers must be aware of the risks.
- The risk assessment should cover any risks to rescuers and the precautions required to keep them safe.
- Rescuers must:
– Have had appropriate training.
– Be capable of using any rescue equipment.
– Be fit to carry out rescues.
– Be at hand at all times.
- Fire is an emergency, and it can put workers at serious risk in a confined space. Local fire and rescue services can provide advice on firefighting measures in confined spaces.
- Firefighting measures should be included in the emergency arrangements, e.g. fire extinguishers and hoses. It is important that the measures introduced do not increase risks, e.g. carbon dioxide in some fire extinguishers can displace oxygen, which would be dangerous in a confined space.
- Arrangements should include liaising with the local fire and rescue service in the event of an incident.
- In an emergency, plant in or adjacent to the confined space may have to be shut down before attempting a rescue. If the plant isn’t shut down, it could increase the risks and hinder entry and exit. The plant may also be the reason for the emergency.
- The arrangements need to detail how to shut down any plant safely and the training required.
- The emergency arrangements should detail the first-aid provision required, e.g. first-aid equipment, facilities and trained first-aiders. There may also be a requirement for special first-aid items, e.g. defibrillator.
- First-aiders need to be available at all times during confined space entry and work. They must be properly trained to make proper use of any necessary first-aid equipment provided.
- The first-aid arrangements should cover foreseeable injuries, and a first-aid needs assessment can assist in determining the level of first-aid provision required.
Public emergency services
- There is an onus on employers and those in control of confined space work to have adequate emergency arrangements in place. Relying on the emergency services will not be sufficient to comply with the regulations.
- Public emergency services, such as the local fire and rescue service and ambulance service, can be informed in advance about long-term confined space work. This will need to be justified by the risk assessment and the emergency services will need adequate information about the work in advance.
- The arrangements should also cover communicating with public emergency services, for example:
– How they will be notified of an incident.
– The person who is responsible for contacting them.
– The information they will need on arrival about the dangers in the confined space.
- Those who have a role in emergency rescue must have suitable and sufficient training and competence. The training required will depend on the individual’s role, e.g. a rescuer who enters a confined space will probably need more knowledge than someone carrying out a non-entry rescue.
- Training should also cover specific emergency procedures, plans, risk assessments and safe systems of work. There should also be a practical element, which can be delivered by setting up a mock confined space and using dummies.
- Refresher training must be provided. The frequency of training will depend on the risks and the role of rescuers. It needs to be frequent enough to ensure those involved in the rescue are competent, e.g. annual training.
- The Approved Code of Practice recommends including the following in training:
– The likely causes of an emergency.
– Use of rescue equipment.
– The check procedures to be followed when donning and using apparatus.
– Checking of correct functioning and testing of emergency equipment.
– Identifying defects and dealing with malfunctions and failures of equipment during use.
– Works, site or other local emergency procedures including the initiation of an emergency response.
– Instruction on how to shut down relevant process plant as appropriate.
– Resuscitation procedures and, where appropriate, the correct use of relevant ancillary equipment and any resuscitation equipment provided.
– Emergency first aid and the use of the first-aid equipment provided.
– Use of firefighting equipment.
– Liaison with emergency services in the event of an incident.
– Rescue techniques including regular and periodic rehearsals and exercises.
Emergency plans should also consider the following points:
- The findings of the risk assessment.
- The safe system of work.
- The location of the work.
- Whether there will be any lone working.
- The duration of the work.
- The resources needed for the rescue, e.g. the number of people required and their competence.
- The method of getting a person out, e.g. self-rescue, non-entry rescue or entry rescue.
- The health status of the person being rescued, e.g. what to do in the event of a worker becoming unconscious due to oxygen depletion.
- Any obstructions or factors that could hinder any rescue, e.g. confined space features, access/egress, adjacent plant and adverse weather conditions.
Rescue plans should be regularly tested to see if they work. This helps those who are involved so they will know what to do in an emergency. It also allows an opportunity for learning lessons if something goes wrong in the practice rescue.
Safe systems of work
Things can change quickly in a confined space, which makes it high risk. Therefore, where reasonably practicable, confined space entry should be avoided. Not only is this a requirement of the Confined Spaces Regulations 1997, but it also eliminates the risks associated with entry into such a hazardous area and the need for rescue.
If confined space entry is unavoidable, a safe system of work must be in place before the work starts, which is based on the results of the risk assessment. It includes the need to account for the emergencies that could arise from confined space entry and the rescue arrangements required to get workers out of the space.
A typical safe system of work would contain the following sections:
- Competence for confined spaces working.
- Testing/monitoring the atmosphere.
- Gas purging.
- Removal of residues.
- Isolation from gases, liquids and other flowing materials.
- Isolation from mechanical and electrical equipment.
- Selection and use of suitable equipment.
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE).
- Portable gas cylinders and internal combustion engines.
- Gas supplied by pipes and hoses.
- Access and egress.
- Fire prevention.
- Static electricity.
- Emergencies and rescue.
- Limited working time.
- Permits to work.
Confined spaces are dangerous, and there have been a number of fatalities associated with working in them. Workers have also died when they have entered to try to help colleagues who have got into trouble. Work in confined spaces can potentially result in multiple fatalities. Therefore, the risks should not be taken lightly.
Employers have a legal duty to protect their employees when working in confined spaces. Part of their duty is to have emergency arrangements in place if entry is unavoidable. Employees also have responsibilities and must follow their employer’s emergency procedures, arrangements and plans. Overall, it is about ensuring that workers go home safe and well at the end of their working day.