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Those who operate in confined spaces know it can be a hazardous practice if they don’t adhere to the correct safety procedures.

The following news stories outline just some of the dangers of confined spaces, and what employers and employees working in them can do to reduce the risk of getting hurt.

The dangers of toxic atmospheres

In the US state of Montana, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Wednesday they are threatening to fine a company over a sewer line that’s putting workers’ lives in danger.

On Wednesday (January 29), the Great Falls Tribune reported the sewer line has been designed to run uphill “for about 7,200 feet before gravity takes it the rest of the way to the city’s wastewater treatment plant”.

The EPA says the problem with the sewer line’s design is that sometimes the flow of material through the sewer line is not fast enough to run uphill, so it just sits in the pipe.

This can quickly use up what little oxygen is already present in sewer and, if enough sulfate is present in the water, it may combine with this to form hydrogen sulfide gas.

While the Great Falls Tribune states that hydrogen sulfide gas is “not toxic to people in small amounts” it can become deadly for any workers who are made to perform maintenance or other tasks in confined spaces.

One of the most dangerous aspects of working in confined spaces is the toxic atmospheres workers are sometimes forced to contend with.

These include atmospheres where, as above, there is too little oxygen, as well as those with too much. In addition to this, there are flammable, explosive or combustible atmospheres, and toxic atmospheres that are filled with contaminants – for example, fumes or dust.

The “Confined Spaces: Code of Practice” compiled by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland outlines a number of steps that employers and employees can take to make sure these atmospheres do not put their lives at risk.

First up is purging. This involves using an inert gas, such as nitrogen, “to clear flammable gases or vapours before work in the confined space begins”.

Once confined spaces have been purged, states Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, they must be ventilated with fresh air and atmospheric testing should take place to ensure all contaminants have been well and truly removed from the area.

To the credit of the owner of the sewer in the above story, atmospheric testing for hydrogen sulfide gas was undertaken three times a week after high levels were detected back in September 2005.

Another step employers and employees can take to rid confined spaces of hazardous contaminants is ventilation.

This involves introducing fresh air into the environment – whether “by natural, forced or mechanical means” to make sure the atmosphere is safe and its temperature is regulated while workers are performing tasks.

If you’re undertaking mechanical ventilation, it’s important to make a note of where the fresh air is being drawn from and where the contaminated air is being sent to – you do not want them to cross paths!

This method of ventilation also requires constant monitoring to ensure it continues functioning properly and its controls are not accidently tampered with by unauthorised personnel.

The Code of Practice also has a few notes for those working in confined spaces containing flammable, explosive or combustible gases and vapours. One of the key safety measures you can take in these situations is removing all sources of ignition from the area.

This includes all open flames, electrical equipment and internal combustion engines. All activities that involve “metal tools striking metal surfaces” or may create static electricity must also be avoided at all costs.

Finally, respiratory protective equipment (also known as RPE) should be worn by all employers and employees operating in confined spaces with toxic atmospheres.

RPE refers to a wide range of breathing apparatuses and equipment that can help workers remain safe in confined spaces where it is not possible to remove containments or keep them at a safe level.

It’s important to remember the RPE is, as always, a last resort. You should do everything in your power to ensure confined spaces contain a safe level of oxygen before you or your co-workers enter them, and only wear RPE if this is not possible.

RPE should also be used when any contaminants are present in unknown quantities or “there is no exposure standard for a substance,” reveals Workplace Health and Safety Queensland.

How to safely navigate toxic atmospheres in confined spaces is just one of the topics covered in AlertForce’s confined spaces training.

The dangers of falling

Two recent cases – one in the US state of Arizona and the other in Wisconsin – demonstrate those working in confined spaces are also at great risk of falling and injuring themselves if the proper safety procedures are not followed.

On Thursday (January 30), AZ Central reported the Scottsdale Fire Department was sent out to rescue a worker from a city water-treatment plant. Jay Ducote, chief of operations at the Scottsdale Fire Department, explained to AZ Central that the worker had fallen “5 feet off a pipe in a 20-foot deep vault”.

The worker was successfully extricated from the water-treatment plant and did not suffer any life-threatening injuries.

That same day in Wisconsin, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited an iron foundry for 10 safety violations that occurred in its facilities during 2013. One of these involved a 30-year-old worker falling into a furnace while he was performing maintenance in confined spaces. He was working alone when the accident occurred.

Safe Work Australia’s “Managing the Risk of Falls at Workplaces: Code Of Practice” offers some useful advice to prevent tragedies such as the above from happening Down Under.

You should begin, as always, by identifying, assessing and control all risks associated with performing tasks at an elevated level in and around confined spaces.

When conducting all three tasks, make sure you factor the distance you could potentially fall, how many people are on site, how well the equipment (e.g. ladders) you are using has been maintained, and whether everyone present has the knowledge and skills to handle emergency situations correctly.

Of course, eliminating the need to work at an elevated level in the first place is the best course of action. However, when this is not possible the proper control measures should be implemented.

All platforms, for instance, should have barriers to prevent workers from “falling over edges and into holes”, states Safe Work Australia. They should also be constructed with enough strength to make sure it can handle someone falling against it.

Any openings and holes that people may potentially fall into should be covered where possible – for example, with safety mesh – and signs should be set up to inform workers of the risk of falling.

You should also use work positioning and fall-arrest systems, as well as anchorage lines or rails when needed. These should reduce the chance of you falling while performing tasks, as well as stop you from seriously injuring yourself if and when you do fall.

Finally, you should never work in confined spaces alone, as someone needs to on hand if an accident occurs.

If you want to learn how to keep safe in confined spaces, get in touch with AlertForce today!

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