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What will you do when a worker becomes injured, incapacitated, or trapped in a confined space and needs rescuing?

Industrial safety professionals must have an answer to this important question. Preparing for these emergencies and developing a plan for timely rescues saves lives. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 1,030 workers died from occupational injuries involving a confined space from 2011 to 2018. The annual deaths range from a low of 88 workers in 2012 to a high of 166 in 2017. 

But even if deaths total one, it’s essential to plan for confined space rescues, where hazards can include oxygen deficiencies, toxic gases and explosive atmospheres.

1. Have you identified your confined spaces?

OSHA defines a confined space as an area with limited or restricted means of entries and exits. These spaces are large enough for workers to enter and perform certain jobs but offer a limited means of entry and egress and are not designed for continuous entry. 

Industrial confined spaces include silos, bins, pits or tank-like structures that workers enter for maintenance or cleaning. These areas also may comprise pipes, ducts and tunnels.

Confined spaces are high-risk areas, even for trained and experienced workers. Employees may fall or injure themselves, succumb to chemical leaks or atmospheric risks, or become engulfed or drown in the contents of these areas. 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data supports these concerns. A study from 2011 to 2018 found falls to a lower level accounted for 156 confined space deaths. Engulfment led to 98 deaths. Falls in tanks; siloes; grain bin interiors; sewers, manholes, storm drains; and ditches, channels, trenches, and excavations comprised the rest.

2. Do you know the hazards that exist?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, inhalation of harmful substances represented a top cause of death. The inhaled gases included hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, methane, sewer gas, and solvents and degreasers. Besides inhalation cases, employers report deaths from oxygen deprivation and drowning.

Though confined space rescues are rare, they present tremendous risks to those performing the rescues. Two-thirds of all deaths occurring in confined spaces were the rescuers themselves.

Confined space rescues challenge rescuers for a variety of reasons. Facilities never designed these areas for long-term occupancy and workers may encounter atmospheres filled with flammable vapors or low oxygen. The areas are dark with limited visibility and tight spaces that restrict rescuers’ movement. Complicating matters, the areas often hold hazardous gases, liquids or free-flowing granular solids. Hazards from unprotected live wires also may be present. 

The configuration and location of the space also factors in. Surveying tight spaces and hazards beforehand helps teams plan the tools and techniques to use in rescues. For instance, a traditional tripod that lifts out workers may not work for some confined spaces. Here, vertical eyebolts installed over entry points can aid vertical rescues. 

Consider entry openings, too. It’s essential to know how much room there is to move around and to consider what equipment will fit in the space. For instance, in some spaces, a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) may impede rescuer’s movements. In these cases, you may need an alternate plan. 

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3. Do you have a confined space rescue team?

When time is of essence, having a confined space rescue team (CSRT) gets victims out before situations turn fatal.

The members of your CSRT may include select employees, local emergency response personnel, and outside contractors. The makeup of this team depends on budget, local resources, and available qualified personnel. 

4. Is your CSRT familiar with the types of rescues?

There are two types of rescues: time sensitive and non-time sensitive situations. Emergency rescues often involve oxygen-deficient atmospheres or harmful vapors where rescues must happen in minutes. Non-time sensitive situations involve injured victims within a space without harmful environment and atmospheric conditions.

OSHA further breaks rescue operations into three categories:

  • Self-Rescue. In these rescues, the individual stops what they are doing and exits the space when they notice hazards.
  • Non-Entry Rescue. This rescue extracts workers with no one else entering the confined space. Rescuers use safety lines, pulleys, ropes, and other means to extract victims.
  • Entry Rescue. A rescuer enters the space to extract an incapacitated worker. These rescues are dangerous and require sufficient planning to conduct safely. 

5. Have you trained your team?

The best defense to a confined space rescue is a good offense. Strategize your response to develop a clear response plan. A well-thought-out rescue plan saves lives. 

Rescue safety directly ties to the amount of training rescuers receive. Trained professionals that use special equipment to retrieve victims, or enter tight spaces to extract victims, must conduct these rescues.

Train employees, who do not make up the rescue team, to stay out of the area and wait for trained to professionals arrive. When rescuers lack training, they can damage the structure, spark flammable materials, injure themselves or cause more injuries to the victim.

Training and certification help CSRT members familiarize themselves with the space and understand potential hazards. They learn the best ways to enter these areas, master rescue strategies, and understand how and when to use rescue equipment.

Attending specialized courses in confined space rescue and rescue techniques and getting EMT training helps rescuers handle these emergencies. But annual refresher training ensures they maintain these skills. 

6. Do you have the right equipment?

Employers must provide rescuers with equipment to perform the work. This includes:

  • Protective equipment such as suits, masks, breathing apparatus, and headgear with lighting.
  • Full-body harnesses that aid rescues requiring lifting equipment.
  • Safety lines.
  • Winches and a tripod.
  • Ventilation equipment.
  • Atmospheric monitoring equipment.

7. Have you connected and trained with local resources?

The best preparation is practice. Rescue drills give personnel live experience with rescue techniques in your facility. Mock disaster drills prepare CSRT members for potential scenarios and make confined space rescue skills second nature. 

OSHA encourages companies to work with local emergency service providers in these drills. Local public safety entities can aid companies in pre-rescue planning, communication and effective coordination for life-threatening incidents.

Answering these seven questions will aid your response when a worker becomes injured, incapacitated, or trapped in a confined space and needs rescuing. Preparing for these emergencies and developing a plan for timely rescues saves lives.