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A PCBU’s responsibilities in confined spaces

According to the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011, a person conducting a business or undertaking (often referred to as a PCBU) has a number of responsibilities when it comes to working in confined spaces.

A PCBU's foremost duty of care is to prevent the need for employees to enter confined spaces in the first place. These are often hazardous working environments, and the best way to stop employees from getting injured or being killed is to simply prevent them from going into confined spaces to begin with – either intentionally or by accident.

There are a range of ways this can be achieved, but most of them must take place at the design phase of such working environments. If plants and structures can be designed and built so they don't contain any confined spaces, this effectively removes the need or opportunity for workers to enter them.

However, it's not always possible to completely eliminate the need to enter confined spaces. When this is the case, a PCBU must try to at least minimise this need or at least make sure confined spaces are designed "with safe means of entry and exit", states the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011.

This document also lists a variety of other responsibilities that PCBUs must adhere to when employees are required to perform tasks in such working environments.

For example, it claims a PCBU "must manage the risks associated with entering, working in, working on, or working in the vicinity of a confined space, including the risk of a person inadvertently entering the confined space."

These risks are many and varied, and a comprehensive list of them can be found in Safe Work Australia's "Confined Spaces: Code of Practice".

In a recent article, we discussed the top five hazards associated with confined spaces. These were unsafe oxygen levels (either too much or too little), engulfment (being swallowed or immersed by a material), fires and explosions, a limited entry and exit, and hazardous substances, such as airborne contaminants.

These are all the obvious risks that anyone working in confined spaces can expect to be faced with. However, there is also quite a large quantity of hazards that many would consider unexpected, but which PCBUs are still obligated to identify, assess and eliminate or control.

The following are just a few, courtesy of Safe Work Australia's "Confined Spaces: Code of Practice".

Biological Hazards: One of the risks your employees may come across in confined spaces is micro-organisms (e.g. bacteria, fungi or viruses). If a worker is exposed to these, they could develop any number of diseases. Safe Work Australia notes that PCBUs with staff performing tasks in sewers, manure pits and even grain silos are most likely to run into this problem.

Electrical Hazards: If your workers are in confined spaces that contain transformers, cables or exposed terminals, as well as wet surfaces that can act as a conductor, there's a risk they might be electrocuted, shocked or burned. 

Skin Hazards: Because confined spaces are exactly what they say on the tin, there's a greater likelihood that anyone in them will come into contact with walls, floors and other surfaces. While this may not be a cause for concern in all cases, in others – especially those in which the confined spaces involved are home to hazardous substances – it can be dangerous.

If a worker's skin comes into contact with contaminants, this could result in burns or "allergic dermatitis", reveals Safe Work Australia.

Noise: Many sites and structures present noisy working environments, where precautions such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and setting up warning signs are necessary to protect workers from hearing damage or loss.

In confined spaces, this noise is often amplified due to the sound reverberating off surfaces, which makes it even more important for PCBUs to look after employees in these working environments.

Radiation: Depending on the type of radiation present in confined spaces, workers exposed to it could suffer long-lasting health problems.

In addition to this, poor lighting, slippery floors, uneven walkways and sharp edges are other hazards that PCBUs should treat with the same amount of concern as those listed above.

To fulfil their obligations under the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011, PCBUs must not only identify such risks in confined spaces, but also have them assessed by a "competent person". The findings of this assessment must be put down in writing, and they will be used to determine what measures are put in place to eliminate or control the hazards.

It's also a PCBU's responsibility to ensure that employees without confined space entry permits are not allowed to enter or perform tasks in confined spaces. These permits must be granted by a competent person and outline who is permitted to enter what spaces and what control measures have been implemented to ensure their safety.

Finally, one of the PCBU's largest and most important duties of care is to make sure that all workers entering confined spaces have received the proper "information, training and instruction" to undertake this venture safely.

This confined spaces training must cover the kinds of hazards workers may come across in such working environments and how to manage them; teach staff how to select, use, test and store PPE; show employees what a confined space entry permit contains; and provide them with details of any emergency procedures.

„If you'd like to learn more about your responsibilities as a PCBU and want to get your employees trained-up to performed tasks in confined spaces, get in touch with the AlertForce team today!

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