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Confined spaces are common across a wide variety of industries. Though working in a confined space may not be an everyday occurrence for every worker, it’s certainly a common occurrence in general. Over 2 million workers every year enter a permit-required confined space at some point. All these workers must know how to stay safe in these potentially dangerous environments. We’re going to define what a confined space is, how to stay safe in one and why confined space training is a critical step toward that goal.

Confined Spaces in the Workplace

When you hear the term “confined space,” you may think of a tight squeeze or even start to feel a bit claustrophobic. A confined space isn’t just an uncomfortably small space, though. Even a roomy space could still meet OSHA’s specific definition for a confined space.

For one, it must be spacious enough for a person to enter, but must also be a space that isn’t designed for employees to continuously occupy it. Additionally, to fit the OSHA definition of a confined space, an area must have restricted access, meaning there’s a limited means of getting in and out of the space.

So, let’s consider a few examples of what would and would not be a confined space. A service elevator in your facility may feel like a confined space, since it is small and has a limited means of entrance. However, elevators are designed for human occupancy, so an elevator would not fit the definition of a confined space. An elevator pit would be a confined space, however, since its design doesn’t allow for continuous occupancy.

A silo full of grain may seem too large to be a confined space, but remember, confined spaces don’t need to be small. Because a silo is large enough for a person to enter, isn’t intended for ongoing human occupancy and has restricted access, it meets the criteria for a confined space.

Let’s look at some more examples of confined spaces. If you’re wondering what industries have workers in confined spaces, the answer is nearly all of them. The following examples attest to that, as confined spaces are common in workplaces of all kinds. Here are some common examples of confined spaces:

  • Process vessels
  • Manure pits
  • Hoppers
  • Water supply towers
  • Vaults
  • Sewers
  • Tank cars
  • Aircraft wings
  • Boilers
  • Manholes
  • Storage bins
  • Tunnels
  • Ductwork

Types of Confined Spaces

Beyond the general definition of confined spaces, OSHA makes a crucial distinction between two types of confined spaces: those that don’t require a permit and those that do.

A confined space requires a permit if it presents a more severe hazard, including any of the following:

  • It potentially contains a hazardous atmosphere
  • It holds a material that could engulf someone in the space
  • It’s structured in a way that could trap a person or asphyxiate them by inwardly converging walls or a sloped floor that tapers down
  • It includes any other known hazard to a person’s health and safety

This last bullet point is a catch-all that would include everything from live wires to extreme temperatures to poisonous snakes — anything that could turn an otherwise relatively safe space into a hazardous one.

The silo example we looked at in the previous section would meet the criteria for a permit-required space, since a worker who enters it could get engulfed in the grain. We’ll talk later about how you can obtain a permit for a space in your workplace that meets one or more of these requirements. If a space requires a permit, employers must post signage warning employees of the potential danger of entering the space.

If a confined space doesn’t present any of the hazards listed above, OSHA considers it a non-permit-required confined space. Signage isn’t a requirement for these spaces, and workers can enter them as needed, but it’s still essential for them to understand how to work cautiously in these spaces, even if they are not dangerous enough to require a permit.

Making Confined Spaces Safer

The first goal if you recognize your workplace includes potentially hazardous confined spaces is to improve their safety. In some cases, you may identify a permit-required confined space you can convert into a non-permit-required space with some alterations to the conditions or the way employees operate in the space. Look for ways to remove any possible dangers that are not necessary to the space.

One example of this is in the case of atmospheric pollutants that make a confined space unsafe. In some of these cases, implementing continuous forced-air ventilation may be enough to make the area safe. In these specific cases, OSHA requires confined space atmospheric testing for oxygen content, any flammable gases and potential toxins in the air before allowing workers to enter.

Of course, some hazards are unavoidable, which is why some spaces must remain permit-required. Returning to our silo example, the risk of the grain engulfing a worker is a reality that can happen even in the safest workplace. When there are hazards present that you cannot remove, turn your attention to determining the best ways to stay safe in the space and responding properly if an emergency ever should occur.

OSHA provides some resources that speak more specifically to various types of confined spaces so you can determine ways to help yourself or your workers stay safer.

Confined Space Regulations

Definitions are an essential aspect of understanding confined space regulations and who can enter a confined space. If you have a permit-required confined space in your work environment, you’ll want to be aware of all the rules that govern it. First, note that the definitions and guidelines we’re focusing on in this post apply to general industry. Some specific industries must also adhere to particular OSHA requirements that apply to them. For example, confined spaces in construction fall under a separate OSHA standard.

Keep a few general regulations in mind when it comes to permit-required confined spaces. One is that you need a permit program for your confined space. The term “permit-required” may seem to suggest you have to obtain a permit for the space itself, so you may be wondering how to get a permit for confined spaces at your workplace.

However, this term means employers must develop and implement written permit programs on their own. Creating such a program can help a company map out the necessary safety procedures associated with a confined space.

OSHA outlines what this program must include. Some of the essential aspects of this program are:

  • Identifying the particular hazards in the space
  • Determining how to eliminate or control these hazards so employees can enter safely
  • Establishing how employees will obtain entry permits
  • Providing employees with any necessary protective equipment

OSHA requires employers to review the entry procedure for confined spaces they’ve established once a year to ensure it’s up to date. They must also mandate employees to receive training, which we’ll discuss in more detail later.

Before entering a permit-required confined space, an employee must fill out a confined space permit to work there. This permit will specify the reason the employee must enter the space and during which work shift they are to enter. The attendant will review the permit with the entrant before they enter the space. While the entrant is inside the confined space, an attendant must remain stationed outside, ready to respond to a potential emergency.

Unauthorized personnel should never step in to try to save someone in danger inside a confined space, since this often only worsens the situation. Well-thought-out emergency plans are vital to promoting safety. One study found no company that had experienced a confined space incident had a rescue plan.

As a reminder, OSHA requires employers to post signage that not only alerts workers to a potential danger, but also specifies that an area is a confined space with access limited to authorized workers. The language OSHA suggests using for this signage is “DANGER PERMIT-REQUIRED CONFINED SPACE AUTHORIZED ENTRANTS ONLY.”

Remember, OSHA publishes many regulations that deal with specific industries, equipment and situations, so you should always seek all the regulations that apply to your confined space. For example, if workers must use a ladder to descend into the confined space, they must also abide by OSHA’s regulations concerning the use of ladders in the workplace.

Roles for Confined Space Workers

We mentioned the terms “entrant” and “attendant.” OSHA defines both these roles in their confined space standard. There is also a third role: the entry supervisor. All three of these roles have carefully outlined responsibilities. Let’s take a look at what those entail.

Authorized entrants are workers who have filled out a permit and have been granted access into a permit-required confined space. These workers must:

  • Be aware of the hazards they might encounter in the space
  • Wear all necessary personal protective equipment
  • Stay in communication with the attendant and tell them immediately if there is a problem
  • Exit the space right away if the attendant tells them to, if they hear an alarm or if they recognize a present danger

The confined space attendant is the employee posted just outside the confined space. Attendants must:

  • Never leave their post and stay focused on their duties
  • Deny access to any unauthorized workers
  • Perform non-entry rescue as needed
  • Be aware of all the hazards that may exist in the space
  • Stay in communication with an entrant while they are in the space
  • Evacuate the space if needed
  • Call in confined space rescue personnel, if necessary

An entry supervisor oversees the permit program more broadly. Generally, their tasks include ensuring operations remain consistent. More specifically, they must:

  • Understand all the hazards the confined space presents
  • Verify permits, procedures, protective equipment and confined space emergency response plans
  • Cancel permits after an entrant has finished working in the confined space or as needed
  • Ensure rescue personnel are on hand and ready to respond to a call for help
  • Back up the attendant on removing unauthorized workers

When all workers fulfill their roles, they can work together to maintain a safe work environment, even in the face of potential hazards.

Confined Space Training

At this point, you may be wondering: What are OSHA’s confined space training requirements, and what courses do I need to take to get certified? These are valid questions, since training is mandatory for all employees who work in permit-required confined spaces. The OSHA standard concerning confined spaces provides the details related to training.

These details do not focus on what the training should include, but rather on when training should occur. The critical factor to note is that employees must receive relevant training before they ever get tasked with entering a confined space. If the potential hazards of a space or the way employees are to operate in it ever change, employees require retraining.

OSHA also charges employers with conducting refresher training whenever it seems to be necessary to ensure workers consistently understand and prioritize safety when it comes to working in confined spaces.

It’s also vital to note that employee rescue service personnel must practice a mock rescue once a year so they are well-prepared. If your workplace has multiple confined spaces, they should know what to do if more than one emergency occurs simultaneously.

Some employees may feel tempted to view training as an unnecessary nuisance, but proper training can make the difference in whether a hazardous situation results in a tragedy or not.

Get Confined Space Certified With Hazmat School

To fulfill OSHA’s requirements and stay safe on the job, supervisors and their employees must receive confined space training. Hazmat School makes it easy by providing this service online. We’ve designed our course to explain the content of this post in greater detail, including confined space attendant training, the need for permits, equipping you to recognize potential hazards, helping you identify the responsibilities of all personnel roles and understanding emergency response operations.

At Hazmat School, all our safety training courses help workers stay safe and remain compliant with the essential regulations that govern your industry. Explore all our courses online, and enroll in our OSHA confined space training course today.

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