Dealing With Confined Space A Complicated Challenge

By Jeff Griffin, Senior Editor | April 2014, Vol. 69 No. 4

Working deep underground inside a large pipe or other enclosure requires specialized training, equipment, work procedures and safety practices.

In addition, it takes a special person who can be comfortable and productive inside confined, hazardous spaces – a task many could not or would not consider.

Utility and contractor personnel often must enter and work in confined spaces such as pipelines, sewers, tunnels, utility vaults and excavations of various depths and configurations.

Confined spaces represent one of the most challenging and potentially dangerous scenarios in construction, says Jackson Pettyjohn of the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA).

“Unlike excavation and fall scenarios where hazards usually are clearly visible and can be addressed with straightforward solutions,” Pettyjohn continues, “the atmospheric issues associated with confined spaces may not provide warnings to the senses. Typically workers cannot see, hear, or in many cases, even smell gases or fumes that may be present. They may not realize that they are in trouble until it is too late for them to recover and self-rescue. Fellow employees, who may see a victim collapse, rush to rescue, only to become victims themselves. The most distinctive and tragic statistic concerning confined spaces is that two out of three victims typically are would-be rescuers.”

Working safely under such conditions is a life-or-death challenge.

Pettyjohn, business development/program manager for UTA’s Division for Enterprise Development, said employers who set out to create effective confined space entry programs, are confronted with a mixed bag of guidance from regulatory and investigative agencies such as OSHA and ANSI. In a misguided attempt to save time, money and “bother,” historically there has been a reluctance to do more than meet the minimum requirements of regulations.

Tools available to safety professions for addressing confined space safety issues are an ANSI standard, an OSHA regulation and some trade and professional journal articles. Robert Spielvogel, director of safety for Clean Harbors, a leading provider of environmental, energy and industrial services, describes these tools as “...often informative, but seldom instructive.”

Impacts all

Pettyjohn says the critical first step for developing an effective confined space safety program is smashing through a “that-doesn’t-apply-to- me” attitude.