Under domestic law (the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974) employers are responsible for ensuring the safety of their employees and others. Confined spaces are dangerous places to work, and so it’s essential to raise awareness about what confined spaces are and the emergency procedures and safety principles of working in confined spaces.
Defining a confined space, however, can sometimes be tricky. It’s important to formulate an objective definition of what a confined space is so that you know how to approach one if you encounter it.
Not knowing how to approach a confined space poses a number of risks for the safety of workers, and can result in massive fines if laws and regulations aren’t strictly adhered to. It’s for that reason why confined space training is of the utmost importance.
What is a Confined Space?
As a term open to interpretation, it’s important to define what a ‘confined space’ is before we get too deeply into the laws surrounding it. In simple terms, a confined space is defined as a space with a restricted means of entrance or exit, and one that is generally not suitable for long periods of human occupancy.
A confined space might be large enough for one or two people to enter and can encompass all sizes of spaces, including:
- Access tunnels
- Sewer systems
Because of the ambiguity and breadth of the term, confined spaces are found across a variety of industries including construction, farming, mining, oil and gas.
What Does the Law Say Regarding Confined Spaces?
According to the Confined Spaces Regulations 1997, there are three key duties that every employer must adhere to:
- Avoid entry to confined spaces wherever possible, e.g. by doing the work from the outside;
- If entry to a confined space is unavoidable, follow a safe system of work; and
- Put in place adequate emergency arrangements before the work starts
The regulations go on to further state:
“No person at work shall enter a confined space to carry out work for any purpose unless it is not reasonably practicable to achieve that purpose without such entry.”
This law can be further examined in the confined space training courses offered by Human Focus in order to properly equip workers and employers with the knowledge about how to handle confined spaces.
What are the Dangers of Confined Spaces?
Confined spaces are extremely dangerous, and contain a number of obvious and hidden threats that both employers and employees should be aware of. These include:
- Asphyxiation from a lack of oxygen
- Suffocation or drowning from the space being filled with liquids or solids
- Volatile gas explosions and poisoning, particularly dangerous when in a colourless and odourless state
In the UK, around 15 people are killed or seriously injured in confined space-related incidents every year.
First Thing’s First - Risk Assessment
Just as with any potentially hazardous assignments, work that takes place in confined spaces must be preceded by a thorough and adequate risk assessment.
A risk assessment will identify all potential hazards present in the confined space. From this identification, all risks can be assessed and safety precautions determined.
The following areas should be considered:
- The task and the environment
- The suitability of employees for the work
- The working environment
- Working tools and materials
- Arrangements in case of emergency
Working in Confined Spaces
If your risk assessment finds there are to be any possible risk of injury, the Confined Spaces Regulations outline several key duties:
If possible, avoid entry to confined spaces environments. If there is any other viable way for the work to be completed, it needs to be considered. One approach might be to consider working from outside the confined space. If this isn’t possible, then consider approaches that might reduce the time spent within the confined space.
If entry is unavoidable, follow a safe system of work. Make use of the risk assessment results to identify any precautions that can reduce the risk of injury during work. All workers involved should be given adequate training and instruction, and a system of strict safety protocols should be followed.
Employees for Risk Management
In order to prepare your employees to the highest degree possible, you may need to employ or appoint competent staff to help manage risks and supervise hazardous work. These staff should be given responsibility to ensure that the necessary precautions are taken to reduce risks and to maintain a safety check protocol at every stage while confined space work is taking place.
They should also be adequately informed through the use of in-person confined space training or an online health and safety training course.
Suitable Working Tools and Materials
While the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in hazardous environments is a given, work in confined spaces will in many cases require the use of additional tools, special signage, and particularly emergency communications equipment.
Workers should be trained on how to use this equipment, as well as other safety tools such as rescue and resuscitation equipment. They should also be taught to be mindful of the hazards of introducing flammable and aerosol-like materials in the confined space.
In Case of Emergency
While it’s not mandated by law to have a rescue team present during work taking place in confined spaces, it is necessary to have adequate emergency arrangements in place should something go wrong.
Regulation 5 of the Confined Space Regulations is quite clear on this:
“No person at work shall enter or carry out work in a confined space unless they have been prepared in respect of that confined space suitable and sufficient arrangements for the rescue of persons in the event of an emergency, whether or not arising out of a specified risk.”
The emergency arrangements that you choose to have should something go wrong should be directly proportionate to the amount of risk involved with the work at hand. Depending on the amount of risk involved, these arrangements might include:
Self-rescue – Equipping workers with gas detection equipment and breathing apparatus should they need to breathe clean air in order to evacuate a confined space.
Non-entry Rescue – This may include equipping workers with a harness with lifting capabilities should the work take place in a confined vertical space that does not allow them casual entry or exit.
Casualty Extraction – Having a casualty extraction team on hand to recover a worker who has become ill or injured while working in a confined space.
Rescue Team – For the most hazardous environments with a reasonable risk, it would make sense to have a rescue team on hand to monitor the situation in case of accidents or the need for immediate work extraction.
Ensure Your Employees are Prepared
Human Focus offers many confined space training courses suitable for all employees encountering confined spaces in the workplace as well as managers and supervisors arranging work in confined spaces. While these courses are not a qualification for working in confined spaces, they are suitable for raising awareness for those working in installation, maintenance, manufacturing, facilities management, or construction.