In certain industries and locations, confined spaces can pose a serious fire or explosion risk. When flammable materials are present in high concentrations in an enclosed area, any spark or ignition could lead to a devastating detonation – causing injuries or even death to nearby workers.

Such an event has resulted in a company operating in the California recently being fined more than US$82,000 due to occupational health and safety (OHS) negligence.

In December 2013, an employee was working within a large steel tank, spraying flammable coating to the inside walls. The worker was using a portable halogen light to improve his visibility. Unfortunately, this lamp created an electrical spark that ignited the coating. The worker was rescued, but had to spend three days in the burn unit of a hospital.

"This was a preventable accident," Department of Industrial Relations Director Christine Baker said in a June 26 media statement.

"The employer was aware that working inside the confined space was dangerous but did not take the required steps to avoid putting workers at serious risk."

In June this year, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) cited the employer for various breaches to confined space OHS standards. Overall, the proposed penalties reached $82,090 and included fines for knowingly using an unauthorised electric lamp in an explosive atmosphere.

Additionally, the employer was required to pay damages related to failing to obtain a permit to work within a confined space and not having proper ventilation or protective equipment in a hazardous area. 

"The purpose of requiring confined space entry permits is to prevent trouble before work begins," said Cal/OSHA Acting Chief Juliann Sum.

"This case involved flammable vapours that needed to be monitored and diluted to safe levels, and a lamp approved for this type of operation was required to avoid bringing a source of ignition into a flammable atmosphere."

Further citations included fines attributed to not providing adequate safety equipment and confined space training for employees working within the tank.

Back in Australia, confined spaces can pose a serious risk to workers' health and safety. In particular, many industries, workplaces and occupational undertakings can result in high concentrations of flammable contaminants. This can significantly increase the chance of a fire or explosion causing injuries and deaths, so must be monitored and addressed carefully.

Understanding the risk of fire and explosions in confined spaces

While there are many potential risks in confined spaces, fire and explosions are perhaps the most dangerous. According to a 2006 report from the Edith Cowan University in Western Australia, 100 per cent of the confined spaces incidents that involved fire or explosions between 1980 and 1986 resulted in fatalities.

In fact, of the 50 total accidents, 76 employees perished due to burns and other fire related injuries. Comparatively, just 58 of the 105 (55 per cent) of grain handling incidents – including engulfment – resulted in worker death.

This high rate of fire and explosion related deaths may be attributed to the extreme danger that continues after the initial event. When an explosion or fire occurs, response crews can also often succumb to the environment while attempting to rescue workers trapped within confined spaces.

It is therefore vital that employers do all they can to prevent fires and explosions within confined spaces in the workplace. Fortunately, there are a number of simple and effective measures that be put in place to improve OHS outcomes.

Preventing fires and explosions in confined spaces

There are a number of key factors that can lead to fires and explosions in confined spaces. These include:

  • Poor ventilation
  • Unsuitable equipment
  • Unsafe atmospheric conditions
  • Radiation and heat
  • Use of flammable materials

It is important to remember that in order for a fire or explosion to occur, three factors must be present – an ignition source, oxygen and a flammable fuel.

Unfortunately, these requirements can easily be introduced into a confined space when proper precautions are not put in place.

For instance, a silo that has been coated with a flammable sealant could fill with a dangerous vapour as exterior heat causes the seal to evaporate. As this vapour or gas becomes more highly concentrated, a worker wearing static-inducing clothing could easily create a spark that results in a devastating fire.

As this is all it can take to cause a fire or explosion within a confined space, workers and employers must be particularly vigilant when working with flammable materials. 

Preventing these accidents is simple, with the right level of confined spaces training and hazard awareness. By taking proper precautions, employees can avoid putting themselves in harm's way and mitigate the risk of an explosion or fire.

OHS policies to have in place include obtaining permits before entering confined spaces, using approved equipment only and monitoring atmospheres for high concentrations of dangerous gases.

In particular, all confined spaces should be tested for flammable contaminants before any work that may involve the use of sparking tools or electrical equipment is undertaken. Completely removing the ignition source or potential fuel ensures that the risk of fires and explosions is totally mitigated.

However, rather than simply providing workers with gas testing equipment, it is also vital that employers provide comprehensive training on the proper use and maintenance of these devices. Incorrect use could lead to a misreading, which may result in an easily preventable accident occurring.

For more information on the hazards present in confined spaces, or to access relevant training for your staff, get in touch with the AlertForce team today.

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