“Stop, drop and roll.” We’ve drilled that into our children so that in the event of a fire — rather than panic — they’d automatically know what to do.
A similar mindset needs to be implemented when it comes to confined space safety as time and again not adhering to safety training has resulted in a tragic number of lives lost across the country. In most of those cases, lives could have been saved either with proper training or by adhering to the safety standards in which they were trained to operate — instead of letting panic or complacency take over.
A tragic domino effect occurred in Key Largo, Fla., in January, resulting in the loss of three lives and severely injuring rescue workers who were all overtaken by fumes. According to law enforcement reports to the media at the time, the men were working on a road project and were investigating resident’s reports of smells coming from a drainage manhole. One worker went into the manhole and collapsed, a second went in to rescue him and collapsed, and the third went in and also collapsed. When rescue workers arrived, a volunteer firefighter took off his air pack before entering the hole and succumbed to the fumes. A second rescue worker put his air pack between his legs so he could be lowered into the manhole. The sheriff reportedly said the 15-foot-deep manhole had ventilation problems and it appeared the workers hadn’t ventilated the hole before going in, nor did they have proper breathing apparatus.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration describes a confined space as an area not designated for occupation but large enough to accommodate a person to get into to provide maintenance and those spaces that have limited access-exit spaces. Confined spaces include tanks, vessels, silos, storage bins, hoppers, vaults, pits, manholes, tunnels, equipment houses, ductwork, pipelines, etc.
Confined space have certain characteristics, such as potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere, contains material that could engulf an entrant — like grain in a bin — walls that converge inward or down sloping floors that could potentially entrap a person. They can also have other safety hazards such as exposed live wires, heat stress and unguarded machinery. Entry should not be allowed without proper training or the reviewing, understanding and following of proper procedures.
According to OSHA, before entering a confined space, workers should first know how and where to exit. They need to identify any physical hazards and should be properly outfitted in full protective gear, plus rescue and air monitoring, ventilation, lighting and communication equipment. Before even lifting a cover, the air should be tested and monitored for oxygen content, flammability, toxins or explosive hazards. In several recent cases, the workers were overcome before even entering the confined space.
Workers need to maintain contact at all time with a trained attendant either visually, by phone or two-way radio. This enables the attendant and entry supervisor to order a worker’s evacuation, or to bring in the assistance of rescue personnel, if needed. The National Fire Protection Association takes those guidelines even further in a document called “NFPA350 — Safe Confined Space Entry and Work Guide” — viewable at www.nfpa.org/codes-and-standards/all-codes-and-standards/list-of-codes-andstandards/detail — released last year.
This document is “more prescriptive,” according to Nancy Pearce, CIH, senior fire protection engineer at NFPA. She explained that OSHA regulations tell people what to do but don’t go into details about how it should be done.
“The analogy I use in my trainings is that I can tell my kids to pick up their rooms — my daughter will dust but leave the toys on the floor, my son will put the toys in a bucket but not dust and neither will make the bed. They each have their own idea of what that means. NFPA350 tells you in detail this is what you need to do,” she said. “Like here’s how to select a gas monitor; here’s how to calibrate it — it’s much more prescriptive on how to comply and (suggests) best practices.”
Types of potential hazards
There are different types of hazards that can occur in confined spaces — some obvious and others not so obvious.
“There are multiple factors that can exist,” Pearce said. “Those that are introduced into the space like with gas-powered tools or welding equipment and those that are adjacent to the space like a flammable liquid tank or a chemical line nearby.”
Some physical hazards that can exist include exposed, energized electrical equipment that could shock or electrify; machinery or equipment with moving parts that could crush or amputate; engulfment with solid or liquid materials; and entrapment.
“Entrapment and engulfment in grain bins has been very common in the Midwest,” Pearce said.
Atmospheric hazards could be the presence of flammable gases like methane or toxins like hydrogen sulfide. The space could be poorly ventilated or have improperly stored chemicals.
Less apparent could be depletion of oxygen caused by the decay of simple organic matters like leaves or by rusting metal. It was reportedly a yearlong build up of rotting vegetation at the bottom of the manhole that caused the atmospheric hazard in Key Largo.
Pearce said decreasing oxygen in a confined space is common but just as dangerous is increasing oxygen, which can be a huge fire hazard and was recently depicted in a “Chicago Fire” episode.
Other hazards can also exist adjacent to confined spaces. It could be exhaust from vehicles running nearby or when the cover is removed, releasing toxins into the air.
“The majority of fatalities, historically in confined spaces, have been oxygen deficiencies,” Pearce said.
Those who know all too well how oxygen deficiency in a confined space can be deadly are city workers living in Middletown, Ohio. On Friday, May 7, 2010, 31-year-old city utility worker Jabin Lakes died after being overcome by nitrogen fumes when he went to check on odors coming from a sewer in front of Air Products and Chemicals.
Rescue workers assumed he either had a heart attack or slipped and fell, and they didn’t take protective measures or test the air and were also overcome.
City of Middletown Public Works Superintendent Brian Adams was there that day and said it was “a moment in my life I wish never happened.”
Adams explained two workers responded to the complaint about fumes coming from the sewer. Lakes lifted the manhole cover and was immediately overcome by the oxygen depleted air and fell in the manhole. His co-worker “turned around and he wasn’t there anymore. Luckily, he was wise enough (and) he didn’t go in; he called me right away,” Adams said, adding that they were trained prior to this incident, but their training has definitely changed since that time.
Adams said when he arrived on scene they were working to get a tripod and a harness. “I wasn’t aware of any gasses,” he said.
He witnessed the first responders get overcome. “They just fell in the manhole. One fireman tried to reach down, and when he bent over, he almost fell in. Right before my eyes — that quickly — they just went limp,” he related.
Adams said everyone on the fire department and police department just backed off then. “They had no idea what to do — it took over 10 hours to get him out.”
Adams said he showed low oxygen levels with his detector and wanted to ventilate but emergency responders were concerned about releasing toxic fumes into the air, so they wouldn’t allow him to ventilate.
He said this particular manhole was in front of a business that produced nitrogen and a busted line in the ground coming from the factory was the cause of this incident.
Since that tragic day, training has changed “dramatically” as has training for the fire department and other municipal departments. He said they’ve increased the amount of self-contained breathing apparatuses and detectors his department has. He said at that time their air packs only had five minutes worth of oxygen. Now before they even consider popping open a lid on a manhole or any cover, they test — something he admits they didn’t do before.
“Now we lower a hose before picking up a manhole lid and test the air before we pop the lid,” he said. “Before, if we weren’t planning on entering, we wouldn’t even test.”
His employees are provided with more training on the basics of confined space safety, which includes information about different detectors and the definition of confined spaces. All new employees receive this training and seasoned employees are also included.
Now when they arrive on a work site, everyone wears SBCAs and harnesses. They bring extra harnesses with them and their air packs without a hose have about an hour’s worth of air.
Adams said he’d advise others, “Never trust an entry. Whether it’s a door, manhole, storm grate — take everything as not being safe.”
He added that workers never thought twice about the city’s regularly monitored sanitary lift stations, but now they test every time before going in.
Pearce said she often hears, “‘We were going in there for years’ … There can be a gas leak underground a mile away that seeps into the ground. It’s very critical not to assume. History means nothing.”
“Take the time to test,” Adams said. “You don’t want a memorial.”
Confined Space Safety
In June the National Fire Protection Association rolled out a program for re services on con ned space safety. The program will have three one-hour training modules on confined space safety, and Pearce said NFPA is making the first module free of charge for re departments.
Visit NFPA’s website for information at www.nfpa.org and to view a free five-minute training demo on con ned spaces applicable to all industries and municipal departments. The demo video can be found under the “training and events” tab.