FIVE HABITS OF SAFE CONFINED SPACE WORKERS

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By W. Jon Wallace, CSP, MBA

As a safety professional, I routinely receive accident reports from around the World. Many of these accidents are related to confined space work. Unfortunately, the same types of mistakes are repeated – resulting in injury or death. Based upon my experiences as well as the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) research on confined space incidents, I have developed five work practices to help ensure confined space safe work practices.

Habit #1: Confined space awareness

Many people who die in confined spaces simply aren’t aware of the potential hazards. An employee is given a job task and they attempt to perform it. The first step in confined space awareness is performing a confined space assessment to identify all permit-required confined spaces and identifying the spaces by signage or employee training. Once performed, employees need to receive awareness training on the potential hazards of confined spaces and your facilities confined space entry requirements. For more information, please read my article on performing the confined space assessment.

Habit #2: Atmospheric testing of space

The majority (approximately 56%) of confined space fatalities are caused by inadequate air quality. Insufficient oxygen is the leading cause of death due to atmospheric hazards followed by hydrogen sulfide. Additional hazards include: methane gas; inert gases; sewer gases; as well as carbon monoxide. All potential atmospheric hazards must be identified and the atmosphere tested with a combustible gas meter prior to entry. In addition, the air needs to be retested periodically to verify the air remains safe for personnel.

Habit #3: Training for authorized entrants and attendants

Employees who enter confined spaces (entrants) as well as those serving as the “hole watch” (attendants) need to receive training. This should include a review of confined space hazards; confined space preparation requirements; responsibilities of entrants and attendants; and emergency response.

Habit #4: Isolating (lockout/tagout) all energy sources

In my professional opinion, the lockout/tagout standard is the best OSHA standard ever written. This is especially true with confined space entry work. All hazardous energy sources must be isolated prior to entry. Typical energy sources found in confined spaces include: electrical energy; natural gas; methane; steam; inert gas; and chemical feed lines. All energy sources must be properly isolated prior to entry.

Habit #5: Completing the confined space entry permit

Think of the entry permit form as a checklist to verify the confined space is safe for entry. When performing confined space program audits for clients, I find that approximately 75% of the entry permits are missing at least one of the 15 items required by OSHA’s permit-required confined space standard.

These five habits are essential to ensuring worker safety during confined space entry work. These elements need to be included in your facilities overall written confined space program.