Confined Space Danger Fundamentals

Confined space danger is a leading cause of work place fatalities.Confined space danger in both General Industry and Construction have vaulted into the top tier of attention by OSHA. A confined space is characterized by one that has a hazard to health or life associated with it. Hazards may be the result of atmosphere or materials in the space or the result of the shape of the space. OSHA has provided new standards as well as enhancing existing standards to help in the enforcement.

“We’ve learned enough over the years that there’s no reason that people should be dying in confined spaces,” said Michael Wilson, director of the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health.

Confined Space Danger Centers Around Asphyxiation and Physical Trauma.

Many workplaces are subject to confined space danger.  Confined spaces are designated as such because their configurations hinder the activities of any employees who must enter, work in and then exit them. For instance, areas where employees much squeeze in and out through narrow openings, and perform tasks while cramped or contorted. The major health hazards are asphyxiation and physical trauma.

Asphyxiation is the leading confined space danger. Workers that have died in such accidents found themselves in oxygen deficient atmospheres as a result of exposure to toxic substances. These may include gases or particulates. In several cases, workers were in the confined spaces of water towers or bulk material hoppers and fell into narrow, tapering discharge pipes. This caused died by asphyxiation due to compression of the torso. Many workers each year, working in silos, have been asphyxiated as the result of engulfment in finely divided particulate matter (such as sawdust) that blocks the breathing passages. All of these must be part of a standard safety protocol to educate and protect against these confined space danger situations.

Other documented confined space death incidents include workers that were burned or ground-up by auger type conveyors, or crushed or battered by rotating or moving parts inside mixers. Failure to de-energize equipment inside the space prior to employee entry was a major confined space danger factor in most of those accidents.

The sad fact, is that many employers have under-appreciated the degree to which the conditions of permit space work can compound the risks of exposure to atmospheric or confined space danger scenarios. In addition, the elements of confinement, limited access, and restricted air flow, can result in hazardous conditions which would not arise in an open workplace. For example, vapors which might otherwise be released into the open air can generate a highly toxic or otherwise harmful atmosphere within a confined space. Unfortunately, in many cases, employees have died because employers improvised or followed “traditional methods” rather than following existing OSHA standards, recognized safe industry practice, or common sense.

OSHA has noted that by their very nature and configuration, many permit spaces promote a confined space danger due to hazardous atmosphere situations. Unless adequate precautions are taken, these can be immediately dangerous to life and health. Many confined spaces are poorly ventilated which leads to the creation of an oxygen deficient atmosphere and the accumulation of toxic gases. The failure to take proper precautions for these permit spaces have therefore resulted in fatalities, as opposed to injuries more frequently than would be normally predicted.

  • To emphasize the point, examine the following statistics from OSHA:
  • There were 431 confined space incidents with 530 fatalities in the US due to oxygen deficient and/or toxic atmospheres from 1992-2005
  • From 8/18/2009 – 12/31/2009 there were 36 worker fatalities and 6 worker hospitalizations related to confined spaces
  • In 2010, there were 63 worker fatalities and 28 hospitalizations related to confined space conditions
  • From 1/1/2011 to 8/1/2011, there were 22 worker fatalities and 3 worker hospitalizations related to confined spaces.
  • Repair & Maintenance and cleaning & inspection activities account for almost one quarter of the fatalities.
  • Construction and manufacturing industries experience the most fatalities

In a subsequent post we’ll examine the various causes of death and injury in detail and discuss how each can be mitigated.