Creating safe workplaces should be a priority for every Australian employer. According to Safe Work Australia, the national body overseeing workplace health and safety (WHS) initiatives around the country, the total economic cost of work-related injuries and diseases amounted to $57.5 billion during the 2005-06 financial year.

This equated to around 5.9 per cent of gross domestic product during that period, and the costs are even greater when you consider the human impact of these unfortunate incidents. In 2010-11, Safe Work Australia states there were 132,570 workers' compensation claims for serious work-related injuries or illnesses – leading to an incidence rate of 13.1 serious claims per 1,000 employees.

Labourers and related workers recorded the highest incidence rate, over double that of other occupations. Men were also at a greater risk, recording a 25 per cent higher rate of claims for serious injury or disease for every hour worked.  

While accidents can and do happen while in the workplace, it is the employer's responsibility to ensure the risk of these events is minimised and prevented as much as possible.

This means taking the issue of WHS seriously and putting safe working practices and policies in place to create a healthy workplace for every staff member. Australia as a whole has been putting a greater focus on this area in recent years, with the release of the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022 guiding the way for every business and organisation in the country.

The strategy aims to achieve healthy, safe and productive working lives by 2022 through a number of measures. While the basis lies in improving national WHS infrastructure, it will be up to employers to do their part to ensure this goal becomes a reality.

As part of this, the strategy sets out specific targets to provide a measure for national progress. This includes reducing worker fatalities from injury by 20 per cent, as well as reducing the incidence rate of claims resulting in one or more weeks off work by at least 30 per cent. In addition to this, the strategy sets a goal of reducing the incidence rate for musculoskeletal disorder claims resulting in one or more weeks off work by at least 30 per cent. 

If these goals are to be achieved within the timeframe, every Australian employer will need to do his or her part to support the effort. This is particularly important for those whose work involves operating in confined spaces.

Safety in confined spaces

Confined spaces can pose particularly high risks to safety because they are not typically designed to allow enough room for humans to work in. The problem can also be compounded by a lack of sufficient ventilation, which accelerates the development of hazardous atmospheres and presents further complications for those required to work in these types of areas.

Essentially, confined spaces are those that are either fully or partially enclosed and were not intended to be occupied by a human person. Confined spaces are likely to be risky for health and safety due to having an atmosphere without a healthy oxygen level, the presence of harmful airborne contaminants such as gases, vapours and dusts, and the potential for engulfment.

As such, confined spaces may result in fires or explosions from the existence of flammable contaminants, asphyxiation from a lack of oxygen or immersion in free-flowing materials, loss of consciousness, impairment, injury or even death.

WHS regulations state that confined spaces do not include a mine shaft or the workings of a mine, or any workplaces that were designed to house humans and have sufficient means of ventilation and lighting as well as dedicated safe entry and exit points. 

What are the WHS duties in confined spaces and who do they relate to?

As always, any person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) is primarily responsible under the Australian WHS Act to make sure that any workers or other people in the area are protected from any health and safety risks related to the business's activities. 

However, other people have important duties to take note of as well. For example, officers in the company (such as directors or executives) are obliged to exercise their due diligence to make sure that the business or undertaking is fully compliant with the relevant WHS regulations and legislation.

Workers themselves also need to take some responsibility for their own health and safety. This means following instructions, complying with risk control measures and emergency procedures. If they need to operate within the risky area, confined spaces training can be vital for equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to stay safe. 

In addition to this, designers, manufacturers and suppliers of any plant or structures including confined spaces are also responsible. They need to do their best to eliminate the need for any person to enter confined spaces. If this is not possible, they need to do what they can to create safe entry and exit points while minimising WHS risks for anyone who needs to operate at the site. 

Creating a successful WHS strategy for confined spaces

To successfully manage the risks inherent in any confined spaces, it's important to first identify any of the foreseeable hazards that could arise from the area. Once you know what risks your workforce is facing, you need to take the appropriate steps to eliminate these as much as you possibly can.

However, if you can't prevent this risk entirely the next best thing is to minimise it. Control measures will come in handy here, but you will need to revise and review these regularly to ensure they are still meeting the WHS needs of your workers in regards to the spaces identified. 

For most confined spaces, the hazards will arise from restricted entry or exit points, as well as the presence of hazardous airborne contaminants. To counteract these dangers you could implement a variety of control measures, from issuing personal protective equipment and gear to every staff member or changing the work practices involved so that only the workers with relevant confined spaces training can operate inside. 

It's also a good idea to consult your workers when devising your confined spaces WHS policy. They may be more familiar with the risks at the site than you are, and may be able to offer more insight in regards to creating the right control measures.

Factors to consider

Of course, for any WHS policy to be successful it must be put into practice by the workforce. It's important to review, improve and evaluate your WHS policy on a continual basis so you are always up to date on its effectiveness. 

If your workforce isn't responding as positively as you would have hoped, seek their feedback as to where the policy may be lacking in depth or scope. Make sure to set concrete goals or targets so you have something to measure your policy against.

If your policy requires changing work practices in or around confined spaces, it's vital to remember that staff members may be resistant to significant change. Consult them as much as you can during the process and ensure they understand why any changes are necessary, to provide a smoother transition between old and new working practices.

Sometimes you may need to provide something more to encourage compliance with the new WHS policy, whether that's an incentive or the opportunity to take specialised training courses.

For more information about managing the risks of confined spaces, talk to the AlertForce team today. 

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