Working in Confined Spaces

What are confined spaces and how should I ensure my employees work safely and legally within them?

Working within confined spaces is potentially amongst the most dangerous of workplace tasks. The challenge incumbent upon all involved is to work as a team in order to ensure that safety is ensured albeit within such a hazardous process.

The Confined Spaces Regulations 1997 relate to ‘….any space in which by virtue of its enclosed nature there arises a reasonably foreseeable specified risk.’ (This does not mean that in order to be defined as a confined space, the area of work is necessarily totally enclosed on all sides.)

A ‘Specified risk’ is a risk of:

  • Serious injury arising from a fire or explosion.
  • Loss of consciousness arising from an increase in body temperature.
  • Loss of consciousness or asphyxiation arising from gas, fume, vapour or lack of oxygen.
  • Drowning from an increase in the level of a liquid.Asphyxiation arising from a free flowing solid or the inability to reach a breathable environment due to entrapment by a free flowing solid.

Examples of confined spaces quoted in the regulations include any chamber, tank, vat, silo, pit, trench, pipe, sewer, well or other similar space. Mines, diving operations, and sea-going ships are not covered by these regulations, however other regulations do apply. Special care should be taken when undertaking work in tanks or vessels previously containing toxic, explosive or flammable substances.

It should be noted that just because a workplace is heavily congested or room for manoeuvre is severely limited, this does not make it a confined space.

The Regulations prohibit entry into the confined space where it is reasonably practicable to carry out work by other (safer) means. They require such work to be carried out in accordance with a ‘Safe system of work’ and impose requirements for the rescue of workers in the event of an emergency.

The control measures specified in the safe system of work must include:

  • Technical factors, i.e. methods of sealing openings to ensure, as far as possible, that nothing can get into the confined space whilst there is work in operation, that access routes are fixed open, ventilation systems provide for both removal of bad air and the input of good air, provision of adequate lighting, etc.
  • Procedural – prior checks must be made on the safety of the atmosphere before entry, provision of support staff as necessary, systems for monitoring workers’ entry and exit, checking the condition, suitability and availability of emergency equipment, time limits on work duration and so on.
  • Behavioural – for example the use of safety equipment including helmets, breathing apparatus and lifelines as necessary, fire precautions, etc. It is vital that the safe system of work specifies the level of competence necessary for the work to be undertaken and the system will also require checks to ensure that only those with the appropriate training are permitted to carry out the work. Methods of supervising workers in the confined space – either from the outside or inside the same space – will also be detailed.
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posted on July 14, 2010
in Safety Topics
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