Confined space risk assessment essentials

Confined space risk assessment essentials
When confined space rescue trainer John Kenyon met with representatives from the communities of Yukon after a workplace fatality had occurred, each representative brought his or her gas detection equipment. Taking a look at each one, Kenyon noted that many of these life-saving devices were quality instruments made by reputable manufacturers.

“But none of them worked,” he says. Some of those municipal safety reps had monitors that were still in their original box and had never been used. Others used theirs daily without realizing the sensors had expired up to two years prior.

“There’s a myth out there that says, ‘I have a gas monitor, therefore I’m all right,” says Tim Morrison, risk management and confined space expert and president of SafetyScope Inc. He says companies often invest in these life-saving instruments without understanding that they have a shelf life, and that the electronics inside tend to drift and routinely need to be recalibrated.

Testing what’s in the air is not the only safety consideration for a confined space. Ventilation is essential. A thermometer and hydrometer can alert workers to extreme heat, humidity or cold. Depending on the confined space and its hazards, workers might need to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as head, hearing, foot or respiratory protection – bearing in mind that the bulkier the PPE, the more awkward for the worker to enter or exit a confined space. Rescue equipment, such as a harness and lifeline, are other essentials.

Gases are not the only hazard in a confined space. Workers may be at risk of entanglement, slipping or tripping, poor visibility, extreme temperatures, exposure to explosive gases, exposure to biological hazards, drowning in liquid, suffocating in a solid matter (such as grain in a silo), being struck by a falling object, or being bitten by a snake or a poisonous insect. They might also be exposed to gases that their instrumentation is not designed to detect. More than one-third of confined space fatalities, Morrison says, occur after a gas detector said the space was safe to enter.

Each confined space is unique. Only by identifying and understanding every potential hazard, from every conceivable source, can workers know what safety gear and protective equipment to use, how to use it, and how to safely perform a rescue. With more attention to this critical stage, workers in confined spaces – and their would-be rescuers – are more likely to survive.

Leave nothing to chance
In 2003, a barge moored in New Westminster, B.C. was undergoing maintenance. When a supervisor working inside a compartment in the hull failed to show up for coffee, two workers went to check on him and never returned. Two others followed and never returned, though one took a moment to phone 911 before losing consciousness – and dying – inside the compartment. Four of the workers died from oxygen deprivation. The other employee and a rescuing firefighter were injured, but survived.

“It’s a phenomenon in confined spaces that not just one dies,” says Kenyon. “A confined space has this magnetism to draw more victims into it… and with every incident, we injure first responders.”

In British Columbia, he says, of the 460 fire departments only 38 or so are career departments. The rest are comprised of volunteer firefighters in small towns who just barely receive enough training to drive fire trucks and put out fires, let alone respond to unknown hazards in industrial confined spaces. The City of Toronto, too, has a shortage of confined space rescuers.

“Toronto fire services has 3,200 firefighters,” Morrison says. “Seventy-two of them are trained in confined space rescue, and even those who are trained often can’t get to you fast enough.”

Companies should not rely on calling 911 in a confined space emergency. Not only do responders endanger their own lives when not trained or equipped for the hazards, they cannot always arrive in time to save a worker.

Every company where people are likely to work in a tank, boiler pit, sewer, silo, pipeline, or other confined space not meant for continuous occupancy needs its own rescue plan. Since retiring from fire services last year, Kenyon has kept busy with his company, Dynamic Rescue, which provides confined space rescue services and trains workers and first responders in confined space entry and rescue.

Facilities personnel at Vancouver Coastal Health have long been aware of confined space hazards and safety procedures. But when they hired Kenyon and his team, they identified all spaces considered “confined” and potentially hazardous and underwent extensive training and rescue drills.

When COS caught up with the hospital’s assistant chief engineer Martin Gotel, his team had just inspected six manholes, a task that set the “game plan” in motion. Workers wore harnesses and other PPE, set up a tripod and winch and ventilated the area. When all was clear, they entered the space but stayed in constant communication with the permanent hall watch rescue person.

“We always have a person standing there,” says Gotel, “not just someone available by radio. There’s always someone, and that person is continually monitoring the environment with the gas monitor.”

After procuring the necessary equipment and learning the drill, facilities staff adapted well.

“Doing it on a regular basis becomes very, very normal,” says Gotel. “In most cases, to prepare yourself for a confined space entry, to do your assessment, to have your rescue team and everything in place, doesn’t take a lot of time.”

He has heard the horror stories and knows that ignoring protocol, even just once, can kill.

“When you think of it, I could nip into this manhole, the guy could have a sniffer on the outside, and I’ll just shoot into there to check something. Okay, but what if I have a heart attack in there? What does it take to do it right?”

Who can assess the risk?
A confined space related injury or death often results from an unusual set of events, or a hazard that doesn’t show up on a hazard assessment. Industry needs better assessments.

People have died in confined spaces deemed perfectly safe in a hazard assessment done in a hurry, by someone unqualified, or that used a generic checklist not tailored to the workplace.

Kenyon once visited a chemical plant where welders worked in a stainless steel tank that an engineer had deemed “low hazard.”

“Meanwhile they were using argon, which is an inert gas that displaces oxygen. There have been cases of welders dying of argon exposure,” he says.

Confined spaces can harbour a number of chemicals that the average gas detector will not detect. “Particularly any type of vault that’s in the ground with pipes or cables running miles in every direction,” says Kenyon. “These vaults end up being catch-alls for substances people might not even be considering. Naturally occurring methane gas sometimes seeps into the vaults that way.”

But not everyone would know that. Who, besides Kenyon, Morrison or a chemist, is qualified to thoroughly assess the hazards in a confined space? Safety laws tend to say a “qualified, competent person” is someone who has adequate training and experience in the recognition, evaluation and control of confined space hazards.

Kenyon recommends that this person conduct the assessment in conjunction with an employee who is intimately familiar with the worksite and tasks. And for that worker to be qualified, Morrison further suggests that mentoring be part of his or her training.

“A hazard assessment requires both theoretical knowledge and on-the-job experience,” he says. “There has to be some formal experience, as well as mentoring. Just because you’ve taken a course doesn’t mean you can make those grey area calls. Courses don’t provide someone looking over your shoulder to make sure you’ve done it correctly.”

At Vancouver Coastal Health, the workers who learned from the experts have gained their own expertise, at least in terms of being qualified to work safely in a confined space and, if necessary, able and ready to respond in an emergency.

“When I go in there to do this work, the last thing I have to worry about is being trapped somewhere and no one getting me out,” says Gotel. “I’ve got full support. I know if anything happens to me I’ve got a team of people who can get me out of there.”

Michelle Morra is an award-winning journalist and former editor of COS. You can reach her at

Photo courtesy of John Kenyon at Dynamic Rescue System