Miami, April 24, 2010 -This post will be about confined spaces and the various permits, regulations and procedures to follow. We in the industrial sectors must ensure that every confined space entry becomes safe and not even a single one results in an accident.
So what are confined spaces? A confined space is defined in most labor or safety regulations, as an area that is enclosed from almost all sides, has limited access from outside, is not usually manned and which could become dangerous for humans who work inside. Examples of confined spaces are typically oil storage tanks, process reactors in chemical plants, the inside of a boiler or furnace or even a city sewer.
What dangers do workers face when they enter confined spaces? Well, they may face a danger of asphyxiation, danger due to lack of breathing air, toxic or hazardous chemicals and even drowning due to water (say in case of an entry into a water storage tank that is being cleaned before refilled with water). Due to these dangers, there are systematic procedures that must be followed in case of a confined space entry. Not following these, is not just illegal, it may endanger human lives. The first requirement in such a procedure, is for an entry permit that is to be issued to any worker who enters a confined space.
According to OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration), a permit required confined space as having the following characteristics:
1) Contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere.
2) Contains a material that has the potential for engulfing the entrant.
3) Has an internal configuration that might cause an entrant to be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls or by a floor that slopes downward and tapers to a smaller cross section.
4) Contains any other recognized serious safety or health hazards.
Despite these guidelines, annually, there are several accidents and fatalities that occur every year, as a result of workers entering confined spaces. The only way to prevent such accidents is by ensuring that all workers (and their supervisors), who work or are likely to work (even once a year) in a confined space are adequately trained to work in such spaces.
The permit to enter a confined space has to be issued by the worker’s supervisor, who is well aware of the dangers of the confined space. There should also be a provision for a person who will remain standby outside, ready to rescue the person inside, in case of a problem.
All hazardous sources of energy must be locked out and tagged, inlet lines must be blocked and oxygen inside must be measured to ensure that the entrant (worker actually entering the confined space) is safe. Note that in case of activities that consume oxygen (think of a welder who is welding something inside a storage tank), there must be a continuous supply of breathing air. Nitrogen blanketing systems must be shut off and ensured that they are not activated before the person comes out.
The worker must wear personal protective equipment. If entering an area that has a presence of toxic gas (like Hydrogen Sulfide) in normal operation, the entrant must also carry a personal gas monitor that will warn in case the contamination level of the toxic gas is above the safe limit.
Of course, there are many other precautions that must be taken, the ones given here are the most basic ones. To ensure that your workers are not subjected to undue dangers, you must ensure training in confined spaces to all concerned. A very cost effective way of doing this is by having an e-learning course that covers everything and can be viewed again and again by multiple workmen.