Reducing the risk of working in confined space
There are many occupations and sectors that require employees to work within a confined space, including mining, construction and maintenance roles. Unfortunately, when an individual enters an enclosed space, they face a significant number of occupational health and safety (OHS) hazards due to the atmosphere and environment.
In particular, farming and the agriculture industry contain a number of scenarios where an individual may need to enter a confined space during the undertakings of their duties. This could include entering a silo to dislodge grain, cleaning the inside of an industrial fuel tank or repairing and maintaining a manure pit.
Because of the vast range of potential confined space scenarios in this industry, farmers and other individuals working in agriculture must be able to identify and correctly address the hazards present in enclosed areas. Fortunately, a comprehensive confined space training course can help.
Furthermore, there are a few key steps workers can take to help reduce the risk of sustaining an injury or illness within a confined space.
Identify the space
The first step to mitigating the risk of confined space work is to ensure you can accurately identify these hazardous areas in your worksite. Many people may be surprised to find that a confined space does not necessarily have to be a cramped area. Instead, a confined space complies with each of the following five elements:
- Is the space partially or completely enclosed?
- Is there an intention to enter the space?
- Does the area have limited or restricted entry and exit points?
- Is the area at normal atmospheric conditions?
- Does the space contain, or is likely to contain, harmful levels of contaminants, unsafe oxygen levels or a stored solid that poses a risk of engulfment?
If the space you are planning to enter complies with each of these elements, you have identified a confined space and must consider the risks you potentiality face.
Identify the hazards
There are many hazards that could result in injuries, illness or even death within a confined space. Knowing which of these risks you may face is a crucial factor in enacting the right OHS measures to protect yourself and other workers.
According to Safe Work Australia, there are 16 potential hazards found within confined spaces. Here are just five:
- Harmful airborne contaminants – Depending on the use of the area, a confined space may contain a risk of materials or fumes that become airborne and impact on atmospheric conditions. This can lead to illness through inhalation or injury when an individual is overcome by fumes. In serious cases, dangerous fumes can even lead to fatality.
- Unsafe oxygen levels – Humans can safely breathe in air that contains 19.5 – 23.5 per cent oxygen. In some scenarios, the level of oxygen in a confined space can become dangerously high or low due to displacement or depletion.
- Fire and explosion – When fumes, vapour or airborne particles become densely packed in an enclosed space, this increases the risk of an ignition source causing a devastating fire or explosion. This is a significant risk as even the friction of clothing may be enough to create an ignition spark.
- Engulfment – If the confined space contains a material that may shift beneath an individual's feet, this creates a serious risk of engulfment and suffocation or crushing. Additionally, engulfment can occur if material is accidentally released into an occupied space due to faulty equipment or a lack of communication.
- Environmental hazards – In certain spaces, there will be significant risks caused by the environment in which the area is found. This could include substantial fluctuations in temperature, the risk of tripping, slipping or falling, or even inadequate lighting resulting in an accident and injury.
Controlling these hazards
The most effective method of minimising the risks of confined space is to avoid entering these environments. This can be achieved by ensuring any tanks, silos and pits have alternative measures in place to mitigate the need to enter them to complete work.
For example, a tank that has access points at various heights and locations around the outside will enable workers to perform repairs and cleaning while standing outside the tank, rather than climbing inside.
However, it is not always possible to eliminate the need to enter a confined space, so it is therefore important to understand the equipment available to reduce risks in these areas. Individuals will also need to ensure they establish adequate entry and exit procedures, in addition to emergency policies, that are communicated to any persons able to stand by and help if something were to go wrong.
Any confined space should be tested for oxygen levels and contaminants before entry. If unsafe levels of oxygen, fumes or contaminants are detected, individuals will need to use adequate breathing apparatus or masks while within the confined space.
Additionally, workers entering silos, tanks and pits should invest in fall-arrest systems to stop trips and slips resulting in serious injury and possible entrapment.
While providing and using all the necessary and available personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety monitors are a sufficient method of reducing risk in confined space, it is also vital to ensure any individual planning to enter an enclosed area has received the proper training.
A confined space training program will enable a worker to accurately monitor the atmosphere within an enclosed space, in addition to maintaining and using their PPE correctly.
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