Risks of Workplace Confined Spaces

Janette Lange

A cement plant worker in Ohio died after being trapped in a silo full of fly ash. A 42-year-old worker in Monroe, Wash., who had climbed into a grain storage bin in an effort to open a stuck chute at the bottom, died when he fell to the bottom. Deadly methane gas from a manure pit killed five in Virginia. Three oil field workers were overcome and killed by poisonous gases in an oil well in Kansas, the second two men while trying to rescue the first.

All of these sad workplace accidents were quite possibly preventable, making them even more tragic. Unfortunately, they are not isolated tragedies but have been repeated in many workplaces with confined spaces. Deaths in confined spaces are considered a recurring occupational tragedy, with 60 percent of these fatalities involving would-be rescuers.

Almost any workplace can have confined spaces. Examples include septic tanks, silos, reaction vessels, sewage digesters, vats, boilers, pumping and lift stations, ducts of all sorts, pipelines, sewage distribution systems, manholes, utility vaults, pits and holding tanks.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines a confined space as one that is: large enough for a worker to enter completely and perform assigned tasks; not designed for continuous occupancy by workers (or anyone else); and has a limited or restricted means of entry or exit.

What makes confined spaces particularly dangerous is that the risk of exposure to atmospheric toxins or other hazards is compounded because of the very element of confinement, the limited access to the space and the restricted air flow.

Asphyxiation is the leading cause of death in confined spaces. Asphyxiation occurs in spaces as a result of oxygen deficiency, exposure to toxic atmospheres or employees falling into narrow discharge pipes and dying from compression of the torso.

After years of research on fatalities and testimonies about the hazards of working in confined spaces, OSHA put into place a standard for permit-required confined spaces (29 CFR 1910.146). It applies to all of general industry and is considered a “performance-oriented” standard, which gives employers leeway to protect their employees in the most efficient way possible from the specific hazards of the confined spaces in their workplaces.

The confined-space standard differs from many other OSHA standards in that it is not a "prescriptive standard," which details what materials, designs and construction methods are allowed to be used, often without ever stating the actual goals and objectives of the given standard. The standard specifically addresses permit-required confined spaces, which are characterized as having:

  • A hazardous atmosphere (or the potential for a hazardous atmosphere),
  • A material that has the potential to engulf someone who enters the space,
  • An internal configuration that could cause a worker to be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls or by a floor that slopes downward, tapering to a smaller area, and/or
  • Any other recognized serious safety or health hazard.

Sadly, even though the OSHA standard has been in place for 20 years, these tragedies are still occurring today. The first three scenarios listed above have each happened within the last 10 years. The tragedy at the cement plant in Ohio occurred in just the last few weeks.

Workers are still dying in workplace confined spaces for a variety of reasons. Some employers have not taken into consideration that confined-space tragedies typically don't stop at mere injuries but usually result in almost immediate danger to both life and health. As a result, the employers in these tragedies have attempted to improvise a solution that doesn't result in safe confined-space practices.

For the same reason, employers ignore safe industry practices, do not address existing or possible confined-space hazards in their workplace, and do not train their employees on safe work practices in those confined spaces. Employees also get too comfortable with the hazards presented and ignore safety regulations, or get in a hurry and don't use common sense or required safe work practices in the confined space.

Regardless of the reason, the results are tragic. Lives are lost, families are forever altered, work is slowed or stopped altogether, and the employers find themselves facing great expenses and financial loss. Therefore, both employers and employees must be frequently reminded of the dangers presented by confined spaces and consider how their own families will be affected by the loss of a loved one to a confined space.

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