Storage tanks, tunnels, trenches, and pipelines are not designed for human beings to occupy. However, these and other confined spaces must be entered at times so workers can perform maintenance or other tasks. Their very design and layout make confined spaces some of the riskiest workplaces for employees in various industries – and this warrants a closer look into the hazards they pose and what employers can do to protect their workers from undue harm.
What Is a Confined Space?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines confined spaces as places that are not necessarily designed for people but that must be entered for certain jobs to be accomplished. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) takes it a step further by describing confined spaces as those that are “not intended for continuous employee occupancy,” have “limited openings for entry and exit,” and have “unfavorable ventilation which could contain or produce dangerous air contaminants.”
Confined spaces may include places that:
- Contain or have the potential to contain hazardous air
- Contain any type of material that may engulf a worker
- Taper or narrow into smaller spaces that could entrap or asphyxiate a worker
- Contain equipment or materials that present fire or explosion risks
Sewers, silos, hoppers, vaults, pits, equipment housings, ductwork, ship compartments, vessels, tanks, bins, and wells are all examples of confined spaces. They often have limited ventilation, entrances and exits that are difficult to access, and tight spots that place workers at risk of suffering catastrophic injuries or even death.
According to a July 2020 Confined Spaces Fact Sheet from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 1,030 workers died in incidents involving confined spaces from 2011 to 2018. The leading causes of these deaths were trench collapse (168 incidents), falls to a lower level (156 incidents), inhalation of a harmful substance (126 incidents), and engulfment in collapsing materials (98 incidents). Less common were fires and explosions (58 incidents) and being caught in machinery (56 incidents).
Why Confined Spaces Are So Dangerous
Confined spaces are dangerous because they are not meant for human occupancy. Workers must go into these spaces, however, during construction or to perform inspections, repairs, or maintenance. When they do, they face two main dangers: atmospheric hazards and physical hazards.
The air in a confined space may be hazardous for various reasons. There may not be enough oxygen in the air because it is displaced or consumed because of a chemical or biological reaction, which can happen due to welding or similar operations, or may occur naturally in sewers, landfills, and dumps.
The typical concentration of oxygen in the air we breathe is about 21%. When this level drops below 17%, we begin to experience symptoms like decreased night vision and increased heart rate and breathing. These symptoms worsen when oxygen drops to 14-16%, and symptoms like poor coordination and fatigue will present. At oxygen levels of 6-10%, nausea, vomiting, and unconsciousness will occur. Rapid loss of consciousness and death will occur when oxygen concentrations drop below 6%.
Confined spaces may also have atmospheric hazards presented by toxic gases. While some of these gases may be introduced by leaks or other means, others occur naturally. The decomposition of organic material, for example, can lead to high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide in a confined space, which is deadly. Cleaning solutions and solvents can also pose serious threats in confined spaces, leading to unconsciousness or death without proper ventilation or protective gear.
When the air in a confined space is not safe to breathe, workers’ lives are in immediate danger. They may experience limited motor function and may lose consciousness and collapse, unable to save themselves or even call out for help. The design of the space itself places them in danger of losing their lives if they are not rescued in a timely manner, as they will be trapped and forced to breathe the contaminated air.
That’s precisely what happened to a 24-year-old assistant manager at an ice rink in Alaska on May 20, 1991. According to a NIOSH investigation, he was called into work that morning to check out a refrigerant gas leak in a compressor room. He entered the room with the maintenance supervisor and another maintenance worker, and the self-closing door shut behind them. Although the three men were wearing respirators, they were not the right type to protect against an oxygen-deficient environment. They all lost consciousness.
About 15 minutes after the assistant manager, maintenance supervisor, and maintenance worker entered the compressor room, the ice-skating director heard a sound and went to investigate. She saw the two maintenance workers lying on the floor, left the area, and called 911.
Emergency responders found the two maintenance workers but did not see the assistant manager, who was lying on the floor behind some piping. They were able to help the maintenance workers, who survived, but the assistant manager was not discovered for another 20 minutes. He did not survive.
The physical hazards in a confined space are varied and numerous. Engulfment and suffocation can occur when loose materials cover or bury a worker, and this hazard is most often associated with silos, storage bins, and hoppers where grain, sand, sawdust, or other loose substances are stored. These materials are unpredictable and can cause entrapment and engulfment in mere seconds. Rescuing a worker who has been engulfed in loose material can be complicated and time-consuming, limiting their chances of survival.
Collapse or cave-ins are other physical risks associated with confined spaces. If the sides of a trench cave in or any confined space collapses, it may trap workers inside or may place them at risk of burial and asphyxiation. Trench collapse is one of the greatest hazards for construction workers.
Workers in confined spaces may also face physical hazards posed by heavy machinery or equipment, falling objects, extreme temperatures, fires, explosions, and electrocution. They may fall into confined spaces without proper warning signs or fall protection.
Confined spaces, by their very nature, concentrate hazards. They make rescue extremely difficult. In fact, according to NIOSH, about 60% of confined space fatalities are would-be rescuers. This makes safety standards all the more important, and employers are obligated to follow these to the letter.
Which Occupations Involve Work in Confined Spaces?
Confined spaces are found in workplaces across the country. Workers in many industries may have to perform tasks in tight and tiny places or enclosed workspaces that put them in danger of experiencing serious injuries. Construction workers, maritime workers, oil and gas workers, and agricultural workers are more likely to work in confined spaces than people in other occupations, and depending on their job descriptions, these workers may enter tight spaces every day.
From 2011 to 2018, the occupations with the highest number of fatalities involving confined spaces were construction laborers, farmers, and first-line supervisors in construction and extraction. Plumbers, pipefitters, farmworkers, truck drivers, maintenance and repair workers, and pipelayers also had higher numbers of confined space fatalities than other occupations.
OSHA Standards on Confined Spaces
OSHA enforces strict standards for confined spaces in the construction, maritime, and general industries. These include:
- Performing air quality testing before a worker enters the space
- Ventilating confined spaces
- Providing workers with proper personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Providing workers with wearable gas detectors
- Using oxygen and gas detectors to monitor air quality at all times
- Using proper communication and rescue equipment
- Devising and implementing emergency communication and rescue plans
- Providing workers with safety training on working in confined spaces
- Limiting work in confined spaces based on the hazards present
- Properly inspecting and maintaining equipment in confined spaces
Employers that do not put safety first put their workers directly in harm’s way, and confined spaces only serve to magnify the hazards themselves and the injuries they cause. At Arnold & Itkin, our work injury lawyers understand the dangers associated with confined spaces. We fight to uncover lax safety standards and blatant violations that injure workers and claim their lives, and our efforts have resulted in more than $15 billion in recoveries for our clients. We believe that all workers deserve to be protected. No matter what.