When facilities routinely follow safety guidelines pertaining to confined space entry, they may not realize how often confined space emergencies happen. Here are some statistics from the Department of Labor involving permit required confined space incidents occurring from 2005- 2009. During that time period there were a total of 481 fatalities. This averages to about 96.2 fatalities per year or equal to 1 fatality about every 4 days. This data only covers incidents with at least one fatality or death, so therefore these numbers don’t include all of the incidents that resulted in serious injuries or illnesses. Over 61% of confined space entry fatalities occurred during construction, repairing or cleaning activities.
A “confined space” may be basically defined as any area which has limited means of egress and is subject to oxygen deficient atmosphere or to the accumulation of toxic or flammable gases or vapors. Some examples include:
Tanks, pits, deep trenches and vaults. Working in any confined space can be very dangerous and a potential killer. A hazardous atmosphere is when oxygen levels are below 19.5% and varieties of gases/vapors may replace the oxygen and/or accumulate to toxic or explosive levels.
Any atmosphere containing less than 19.5 % oxygen is considered to be oxygen deficient. Air containing 16 % or less oxygen is lethal.
Take the following safety precautions to avoid death or serious injury when working in confined spaces:
a. You should never enter any confined space without knowing what is in it, what was in it and what precautions should be taken.
b. If time allows then you should, purge the involved space with steam, water, compressed air or fresh air using exhaust and blowing devices. Then retest the atmosphere after purging.
c. A competent person should use gas detection equipment to test the atmosphere to determine if there are any toxic gases and if there is sufficient oxygen to support life.
d. Close and lock-out any supply lines, chutes, pipes, etc., to confined space in which work is being done. Continue to monitor the atmosphere in a confined space even if it was “safe” when work began.
e. You should then carefully remove any remaining sludge or other deposits. Extreme caution must be taken since some caustic cleaning solvents can react violently with some residues.
f. If atmosphere is possibly explosive or flammable, you should avoid all possible sources of ignition and take precautions when purging the contaminated space.