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Do you work in confined spaces? It can be challenging, and you'll be exposed to risks such as poor ventilation that are unique to this environment.

If you don't take the required precautions, you could be in danger of losing consciousness, being injured or even killed due to exposure to hazardous atmospheres.

While your employer is responsible for your wellbeing by ensuring you are properly trained and provided with the appropriate equipment, there are steps you can take to keep safe in confined spaces.

One of the most important is understanding which Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) or Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to use and when.

Respiratory Protective Equipment

A wide range of equipment is categorised as RPE. These devices are all designed to prevent the user from inhaling airborne contaminants, thereby reducing the risk of injuries occurring.

RPE basically falls into two categories: air-supplied respirators and air-purifying respirators.

WorkSafe Victoria explains that the former category provides those working in confined spaces with "clean, breathable air" from a source that is independent of them. They are commonly used in high-risk environments.

The latter simply filter or clean the air in the workplace itself before workers inhale it, and are usually worn by the workers themselves.

According to Safe Work Australia, RPE should be provided to people working in confined spaces if it's not possible to ensure such spaces have an adequate level of oxygen through other methods, such as purging or ventilation.

These methods of controlling workers' exposure to airborne contaminants should be ruled out before RPE is used.

When deciding what type of RPE to use for a particular task, consider what airborne contaminants are present and in what concentration. Your business should have a sound knowledge of workplace exposure standards so that you're aware of legal concentration limits.

It's important to always wear RPE in situations where airborne contaminants are present in unknown quantities.

Your selection will also depend on what sort of task you're trying to perform. If you're not sure which RPE to use in a particular situation, it's a good idea to contact both chemical suppliers and RPE manufacturers – they should be able to point you in the right direction.

Personal Protective Equipment

PPE is used to protect workers in confined spaces.

It can consist of head protection (such as helmets), foot protection (such as boots with steel toecaps and midsoles with a good grip), hand protection (such as hard-wearing gloves), hearing protection, eye protection and body protection.

The Department of Health recommends using "full coverage clothing" at all times to prevent workers from overheating.

You may also be required to wear a safety harness or line when entering or exiting confined spaces.

In addition to this, your employer should provide you with PPE for testing and monitoring the atmosphere of your workplace. You must be properly trained to use this, and always make sure it's up to standard.

Being trained to use testing and monitoring equipment is important, as there are a number of factors you'll need to take into consideration when using it. For instance, you must be aware of the temperature of the space you're working in, as well as the gases and vapours present.

The Department of Health explains that certain levels of airborne contaminants and gases can affect the readings such pieces of equipment give you.

As with RPE, PPE must only be used in conjunction with other risk control measures.

There is a hierarchy of such measures that should be followed when working in confined spaces. At the top of this list is conducting a thorough risk assessment, which takes into account the results of atmospheric testing, what tasks will be performed in the confined spaces and what airborne contaminants workers might be exposed to.

What type of PPE you use and when will depend on the risk assessment you conduct. All confined spaces come with unique hazards, so it's important that you're aware of these before you select your PPE.

Keep in mind:

– You should never modify a piece of PPE or RPE without the consent of its manufacturer.
– Before entering confined spaces wearing a PPE or RPE, make sure it's comfortable, fits and will offer sufficient protection.
– If you have facial hair, you might not be able to "achieve a proper face seal when wearing a respirator", according to WorkSafe Victoria. So, you may have to remove this before using RPE in confined spaces.
– You must flag any respiratory or other conditions that could prevent the RPE from working effectively with your employer.
– Make sure you PPE or RPE doesn't prevent you from moving freely, as this could turn it into a hazard.

Where can I find out more?

If you're going to be working in confined spaces, it's important you undergo the proper training. AlertForce offers a specially designed course that will equip you with the skills and knowledge to perform tasks safely in confined spaces.

The course will give you an overview of best practices when it comes to working in difficult-to-get-to spaces, such as storage tanks and silos or drains and sewers. This includes training on how to keep yourself and your co-workers safe in oxygen-deficient, flammable and toxic atmospheres.

You will also get a grounding in safe work procedures, including PPE and RPE.

So, what are you waiting for? Get in touch with AlertForce today – it could save your life!

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