The agriculture industry is one of Australia's most dangerous sectors in which to work, according to WorkSafe Victoria. Farmers and other employees within this industry face many risks and hazards while performing their daily tasks.

Of these hazards, confined space poses unique health and safety problems that can often lead to serious injury or death when not sufficiently prepared for.

A confined space is defined as an area that's not designed or intended for human occupation, has limited entry or exit points, is built to be at normal atmospheric pressure when a person is present or is likely to pose a danger of suffocation, engulfment or asphyxiation.

There are many potential work spaces that could represent a confined space on a farm or within another form of agriculture-based organisation – such as grain driers, silos, integrated feed systems and water tanks.

The most common confined space incidents involve a silo or tank with limited oxygen supply, or a danger of engulfment due to loose grains.

What are the hazards present in confined spaces?

In the agriculture industry, there are many reasons why a worker may need to enter a confined space, including dislodging grain blockages, cleaning tanks and making repairs.

Unfortunately, working in these conditions poses many hazards to an individual's health and safety. Identifying these risks is the first step in avoiding potential injuries and fatalities.

When working with grain, farmers must be aware of the danger of engulfment. When a worker enters a silo or holding tank that contains a bulk commodity – such as grain – there is always a risk the material will shift and trap or suffocate the individual.

Other examples of materials that pose a significant risk of engulfment include liquids, fertiliser, animal feed and sand. Often these materials can become fixed or bonded while in storage. If a worker was to enter the space and walk on or below this 'crust', any movement by the commodity could cause the crust to collapse and engulf the individual.

Unsafe oxygen levels are another major confined space hazard on a farm. Situations that require an employee to enter a manure pit, water tank or other enclosed area could be dangerous if the space has compromised air quality.

Asphyxiation occurs in these situations when the atmosphere within a confined space is oxygen deficient. An example provided by WorkSafe Victoria details how a 65-year-old dairy farmer, his two sons, a grandson and a nephew died when they entered a manure pit with an oxygen-deficient atmosphere. 

The incident occurred when one of the sons entered the pit to fix an agitator shaft and was overcome by the highly toxic gases, such as methane and hydrogen sulphide, released by the decomposing manure.

Each of the other victims then entered the pit in an effort to rescue the overcome individuals, resulting in multiple fatalities due to asphyxiation.

Another high-risk hazard present in agricultural confined space is the danger of fire and explosion caused by grain dust drifting into compressed areas.

Dust is often made from highly flammable material, which means if it drifts into an area with an open flame it can easily cause a fire or explosion. In a confined space, this danger is amplified due to the high quantity of dust in a smaller area. 

How to prevent the hazards

The single most efficient way of avoiding the danger present in confined spaces is to avoid working in these areas. Consider if there are possible ways to complete the required tasks without entering the space.

Additionally, preventing the need to work in a confined space is also important. This includes covering all tanks and pits to ensure debris and animals cannot enter and pollute the material inside, or using filters or automatic cleaning systems to minimise the chances of a build-up or blockage.

If working in the confined space is unavoidable, other measures will need to be put in place. One of the most important steps towards working safely in a confined space is to ensure you have received adequate training before entering any bins or tanks.

This includes seeking confined space training from a registered and licenced organisation, such as AlertForce. A certified confined space training course will educate workers on the necessary equipment, processes and knowledge needed to complete work safely in these areas.

Once you have received training, the next step is to ensure the area you are entering is safe or poses minimal risk to your health. This includes monitoring oxygen levels, accurately checking the stability of material within the space and turning off any machinery that could cause engulfment due to a shifting commodity or suffocation due to fumes.

If you need to enter a confined space, it is crucial that you ask a trustworthy individual to observe you while you work. It is recommended that you choose someone who has also undergone confined space training, as they will need adequate knowledge of how to safely assist you during an emergency.

Even when working with an observer, all workers entering a confined space should use any available personal protective equipment.

This includes wearing a breathing mask when oxygen levels are low and securing harnesses or lifelines to the top of the tank or silo.

A lifeline will help you avoid falling if the grain or other material present moves unexpectedly. It will also help you to find your way out or guide rescuers to you if you do become engulfed.

If your industry or occupation requires you to work in a confined space, contact the team at AlertForce about confined space training today.