When undertaking work within a confined space, individuals face a significant number of occupational health and safety (OHS) risks. Depending on the environment, engulfment can be one of the most common causes of injuries and deaths within confined spaces.

A recent audit from the Department of Mines and Petroleum's Resources Safety Division found non-compliance is a major issue within the resources industry. Published in the Resources Safety magazine, the review revealed that many workers are not adequately trained or supervised when working in confined spaces.

To ensure OHS standards are being followed, it is crucial employers invest in approved confined spaces training and qualifications when responsible for workers who need to enter confined spaces.

Failing to ensure employees are trained in confined spaces safety and awareness can have devastating consequences as individuals face significant hazards and health risks. Without the correct policies and procedures in place, the probability of injury or death increases substantially.

To help protect your employees within confined spaces, here are the key issues regarding engulfment and how to address them in your workplace.

What is engulfment?

In certain confined space environments, workers can be at risk of potential engulfment. This refers to any situation in which an individual is trapped by bulk materials, such as grain, or liquids.

The most serious consequence of engulfment is asphyxiation, followed by potential crushing. When overcome by liquid, asphyxiation is likely through drowning, while dry materials can block oxygen flow, clog a person's airways or crush their chest and cause breathing difficulties.

There are three key scenarios where engulfment becomes a significant risk.

  1. In the first scenario, machinery maintenance and repairs is crucial. If a worker enters an empty tank or silo for any reason, a faulty system may release material into the space unexpectedly.
  2. When employees undertake the unblocking of materials from pipes and tanks, unsuitable positioning or practices can lead to dislodged grains, for example, falling onto the individual.
  3. Some materials stored in confined spaces can form crusts and bridges as the substance shifts underneath. If a worker was to walk across this bridge, their weight could cause the crust to crack or dislodge, resulting in engulfment.

Understanding and addressing these risks is a vital step in improving OHS outcomes in a range of industries, including manufacturing, agriculture and mining.

Minimising the risk of engulfment

There are many potential practices that can be put in place to minimise the risk of engulfment. Perhaps the most effective is to avoid entering the confined space altogether.

With the right tank and silo design, workers may not be required to enter a confined space. To support this, manufacturers are required to install, wherever possible, access to lines and feeds from outside of the tank.  With external access points, employees are able to unblock, assess and clean the confined space without the risk of engulfment.

However, this is not always a possibility. In many cases, the need to enter a confined space is unavoidable.

In order to improve OHS outcomes with a confined space, employers are required to access the right permits and training for any worker required to enter the relevant area.

By ensuring the correct permits are awarded, employees can undertake their tasks with accurate knowledge regarding the specific risks and hazards they may face within the confined space. Most permits will only be offered once a range of particular factors are taken into account, including the materials contained in the space and the quality and maintenance of the equipment being used.

Additionally, by investing in confined spaces training, individuals can ensure they understand not only the risks they may face, but also the best practice procedures to follow if an emergency occurs. This includes the use of personal protective equipment, as well as any potential rescue items that may be required.

Responding to an engulfment emergency

When engulfment occurs, it is not just the affected individual at risk. In many cases, the response team face the same range of hazards and potential risks as the employee in danger.

It is therefore crucial that rescue personnel have undertaken adequate training in emergency response procedures. When operating in a confined space, it is important to ensure a stand-by employee is available to raise the alarm if engulfment occurs.

While it is not necessary for this person to be trained in rescue and response, untrained individuals need to be aware of the risks of entering the confined space. This will ensure the stand-by worker does not attempt to rescue the engulfed employee, as his could lead to themselves becoming overcome and trapped.

Employees must understand their limitations in regards to confined spaces emergency response, and never attempt a rescue unless they have received adequate and appropriate training. Even those who hold the right qualifications are subject to various factors that may impact their ability to perform a rescue, such as access to safety equipment – such as breathing apparatus and harnesses.

It is also important to ensure response teams have a proper rescue plan in place before entering a confined space. This includes enacting a hierarchy of enter personnel, to outline who should be allowed within the confined space and at what point during the rescue they should perform their duties.

If you're business operates within an industry with confined space hazards, it is crucial that you understand your duties as an employer regarding OHS outcomes. For more information on engulfment and confined spaces safety training, get in touch with the team at AlertForce today.