Mining, shipbuilding and tunnelling – what do these three jobs have in common?

They all involve extended periods working in confined spaces, one of the most serious OHS hazards in Australia today. Although perhaps not as widely publicised as other threats such as asbestos, the implications of a confined workspace can be just as severe.

If you are an employer or employee in any industry that involves working in a confined space environment, it is absolutely crucial you have an in-depth knowledge of confined space best practices. Maintaining a safe workplace can only begin with training the very people who will be carrying out the work.

So how exactly is a confined space defined, and what makes them particularly hazardous places to work in?

What is a confined space?

Although it can seem like a simple enough concept at first glance, confined spaces span a broad range of work environments and the associated risks.

In its most basic form, a confined space is any area that is “not intended for human occupancy”. Such areas are not usually intended for humans to perform work in on a regular basis. The threat to human safety and lives that these places bring means they should be avoided by people wherever possible and access only granted to trained individuals when necessary.

Examples of common confined spaces where people may be required to carry out work include structures such as vats, tanks and silos, trenches, mines, sewers and large containers.

Most confined spaces are either completely or partially enclosed, which can add further danger to an already hazardous workplace.

Confined spaces are also characterised by limited entry and exit, meaning there is a high possibility of people getting trapped inside them. They may also contain harmful substances such as toxic gases that when combined with a sealed atmosphere, can prove fatal to humans.

As such, confined spaces create a range of specific OHS risks and threats.

The risks involved with confined spaces

One of the main hazards of working in a confined space is the risk of asphyxiation due to the enclosed nature of the area. Oxygen supply in a confined area can gradually wear thin over time, posing a threat to the life of anyone working inside it.

The hazard is also amplified if the confined space contains large amounts of a substance – be it a gas, liquid or solid. For example, build-up of a toxic gas in a sealed environment can slowly poison a worker, while it is also possible to drown in a vat full of liquid. Another common cause of death in Australia is people sinking or being engulfed by grain in silos.

Some unstable confined spaces such as partially demolished buildings can also collapse without warning, trapping anyone inside.

But perhaps one of the most concerning aspects of these environments is its potential to draw others to it as well in rescue attempts to save a trapped worker. In addition, confined spaces that contain a flammable substance can pose an extra threat due to the chance of ignition and explosion, putting the lives of even those outside the space at risk as well.

While the hazards posed are numerous, there are ways to mitigate them – and one of the most effective ways is to provide certified training to anyone who will be encountering these areas.

The importance of getting confined spaces training

One of the main reasons behind just about any work-related injury or death is a lack of proper education and training.

Employers have a legal and ethical obligation to ensure their workers have the knowledge and skill required to work in unsafe environments. For example, the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2007 outlines that employers have an obligation to make the workplace as safe as possible. In addition to identifying, managing and eliminating physical risks, this includes providing information and instruction to the relevant employees.

Usually the most practicable way of providing this is to sign them up for training courses. Run by specially trained experts in the field who have the working knowledge of how to best deal with these hazards, such courses will ensure your workers have the confidence and knowledge to head into a confined space and make it back out alive.

What confined spaces training involves

Confined spaces training courses such as those offered by AlertForce provide a comprehensive syllabus dealing with all aspects of safely working in these areas.

These courses include specific training on entry and exit techniques, providing guidance on how best to navigate in and out of these spaces to reduce the chances of being trapped.

Workers also learn how to identify the unique hazards in different types of confined spaces and how to manage them. Depending on the specific environment, there can be a presence of flammable or toxic substances and of course the threat of losing oxygen supply. The training teaches safety measures such as testing the atmosphere beforehand to ensure it is safe for work, and how to facilitate better ventilation if necessary.

Attendants learn about the best work procedures to operate safely in confined spaces. Performing the same work is vastly different depending on whether it is done in a confined space or out in the open, so some modifications may be required. This can also include emergency procedures that are specific to confined spaces.

Instruction is also provided on the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory equipment to use in different confined space environments.

What other measures can you take?

In addition to adequate training, there are some other things you can do as an employer to ensure the safety of your workers.

An entry permit system is an absolute must for any workplace that involves confined spaces. These permits act as a way for managers to communicate with staff, outlining the current risk and hazards and whether a safety check has been performed by anyone about to enter the space.

Implementing an entry permit system and getting your staff to use it correctly could potentially save lives.

At the end of the day, effective communication is key, and you should make an effort to alert everyone to the hazards posed through the use of signage and formal instruction.

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