Confined Space Fatalities - Expert Article

Confined space working conditions have certain inherent risks and specific requirements for worker safety. To the uninformed, the hazards can be subtle, often invisible and misunderstood, but potentially deadly. When investigating confined space fatalities, it is necessary to understand the specific hazards in that environment, the operating procedures that were in place at the time of the incident, and the hazard recognition/mitigation process that was followed.

In this article, Certified Industrial Hygienist and Certified Safety Professional, David Breitigam discusses some of the information that attorneys and insurance professionals should understand when involved in these cases.

Confined Space Fatalities - Expert Article

WHAT IS A CONFINED SPACE?

The term “Confined Space” is an industry term used to describe spaces that meet specific criteria. A confined space is large enough for workers to enter and perform work but has limited or restricted means of entry/exit and is not designed for continuous occupancy. Examples include storage tanks, bins, manholes, pits, silos, underground utility vaults, and pipelines.

Due to their smaller areas and limited access, confined spaces have certain inherent risks:

  • Toxic and explosive gases can quickly accumulate to dangerous concentrations
  • It can be difficult for workers to distance themselves from physical hazards in the environment
  • Cave-in and collapse hazards may be prevalent
  • Injured workers can be more difficult to extricate from danger

Related to these hazards, confined spaces are subject to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements and numerous consensus standards, including American Petroleum Institute (API), American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Various international standards pertaining to confined spaces may also be applicable.

PERMIT REQUIRED CONFINED SPACES

OSHA uses the term “permit-required confined space” to describe a confined space that may contain one or more of the following characteristics:

  • A hazardous or potentially hazardous atmosphere
  • Material which can engulf an entrant
  • Walls that converge inward or floors that slope downward and taper into a smaller area which could trap or asphyxiate an entrant
  • Serious physical hazards such as unguarded machines or exposed live wires

When any of these conditions exist, there are specific requirements that must be met before entry to the confined space can be safely permitted. The foundational step is for a qualified safety personnel or an industrial hygienist to perform a hazard analysis to understand the hazards, risks, and appropriate mitigation strategies for the specific environment with consideration for the tasks to be performed in the confined space.

In the context of a confined space, the entry/exit points are a particular point of focus, as they will dictate rescue procedures. It is also important to consider and evaluate lighting, ventilation, and personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements that will promote worker safety. Depending on the environment, it may be necessary to restrict specific confined space activities to reduce additional hazards.

Based on the findings of the hazard analysis, the organization responsible for safety of the project will issue a confined space permit. The details laid forth in the permit will include information such as rescue operations, details for periodically assessing that the environment is hospitable, communication channels between those inside and outside of the confined space, PPE requirements for those entering the space, and requirements for there to be a qualified person outside of the confined space during occupation.

Any individuals entering the confined space must be informed of the hazards and sign-off on the details of the permit.

CONFINED SPACE FATALITIES IN THE UNITED STATES

Entrapments and toxic inhalation consistently rank among the top causes of fatalities in confined spaces. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a general upward trend in fatalities from 2011 to 2018 with the three most common environments/incident types as:

  • Tanks, silos, bins or vat interiors (312 cases) – 158 cases due to engulfment or collapsing material.
  • Ditches, channels, trenches or excavations (203 cases) – 166 cases due to trench collapse.
  • Underground mines, caves or tunnels (129 cases) – 29 cases due to inhalation of harmful substance.

During the same time period the top 3 occupations with the most confined space fatalities were construction laborers (173), farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers (79), and first-line supervisors of construction trades and extraction workers (63).

INVESTIGATING CONFINED SPACE FATALITIES

When investigating these cases, it is insightful to review the confined space permit within the context of the event. Was the root cause of the mishap identified during the hazard analysis or should it have been? Was there a pre-job safety meeting to communicate the hazards? Were appropriate safety protocols in place to protect workers from the circumstances that occurred? A typical step in the forensic process is to determine if every person allowed to enter the confined space had the necessary experience and training to safely enter or supervise work conducted.

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