by Darryl Castillo
Environmental, Health and Safety Specialist

Confined spaces are typically characterized by limited entry and exit points, poor ventilation and restricted mobility, which can create deadly conditions. One of the most significant dangers is the risk of atmospheric hazards such as oxygen deficiency, toxic gases or flammable substances, which can accumulate within confined spaces and pose immediate threats to anyone entering them. Additionally, the confined nature of these spaces can make it difficult to escape in the event of an emergency, increasing the potential for injury or fatality.

Physical hazards such as engulfment, entrapment or falling objects can also increase the danger within confined spaces. Despite awareness of these risks, people still tragically lose their lives due to factors such as inadequate training, lack of proper safety equipment, failure to conduct thorough risk assessments, insufficient communication and rescue procedures or not having a SOP for confined space entry. The complexity of confined space operations, coupled with the overconfidence or complacency of workers, can lead to lapses in safety protocols and ultimately, tragic outcomes.

One such incident on June 14, 2022 in Edmond, Oklahoma involved employees of Belt Construction Inc. An employee climbed into a newly installed sewer manhole to conduct testing when they lost consciousness. Trying to rescue the worker, a second employee followed into the manhole and also lost consciousness. Both workers later succumbed to their injuries.

“Two lives were lost – and family, friends and co-workers are left to grieve – because Belt Construction Inc. failed to follow legally required steps designed to prevent a needless incident like this from happening,” said OSHA Area Director Steven Kirby in Oklahoma City. “Employers assigning people to work inside a confined space must comply with safety standards, including providing and ensuring the use of required safety equipment, and obtain all necessary permits before the job starts to avoid tragedy.”  OSHA cited the company for six serious and two willful violations and proposed $287,150 in penalties. 

This type of an event happens at least 100 times a year!

Companies must mitigate the dangers of confined spaces through training and education of workers, strict adherence to safety protocols and thorough risk assessments before any entry. Ensuring proper ventilation, atmospheric monitoring and access to personal protective equipment is crucial.  If there is a rescue team on-site, regular drills and emergency response plans are essential components of confined space safety and the team should practice at least once a year. These drills can significantly reduce response times in the event of an incident. Fostering a culture of safety awareness and accountability within organizations is paramount to prevent the loss of lives in confined spaces. It is crucial that the employees recognize the hazards of confined spaces are persistent, and continued vigilance is required to prevent further tragedies in these perceived innocuous environments.

How We Can Help
Confined spaces present unique challenges for workers and require comprehensive understanding of diverse hazards as well as permitting processes.  EI safety professionals are available to identify your qualifying confined spaces, provide onsite assessments of hazards, debate program options and deliver training on a variety of procedural levels. If you have confined spaces within your facility or have other safety concerns, please contact Darryl Castillo at (540) 420-1229 or [email protected].