Working Safely In A Confined Space

The safety legislation which covers working in confined spaces can be found in the Confined Spaces Regulations of 1997.

Every year, workers are killed or seriously injured in a wide range of occupations and industries as the result of working in confined spaces. Deaths and injuries are not just limited to the workers themselves either but also to those who have tried to rescue them without proper equipment or adequate training.

What Constitutes a Confined Space?

When it comes to the law on safety in confined spaces, it generally refers to spaces where there is a risk of serious injury or death due to dangerous conditions such as a lack of oxygen or from Hazardous Substances. However, it’s not possible to categorise confined spaces at work completely. For example, certain locations can become a confined space when work or modifications are being carried out. However, here is a list of some of the more common confined spaces which the safety legislation will cover:

  • Storage tanks
  • Enclosed drains and sewers
  • Silos
  • Ductwork
  • Vats
  • Reaction vessels
  • Chambers which are open-topped

The Dangers That Can Arise

There are many inherent dangers with work that is carried out in confined spaces and so safety is of paramount importance. A lack of oxygen which can suddenly occur for several reasons is probably one of the most obvious but there are others too. Poisonous gas or toxic smoke can build up in underground work or it can enter via connecting pipework or through leaks in things like pits and trenches. Gas and from liquids and solids which can escape when disturbed is another issue as well as the obvious Risks of Fire and explosion.

The Effects on Workers

In addition to management needing to ensure that all of the equipment and processes are working properly and in accordance with the law to prevent a catastrophic disaster, there are other day-to-day life issues regarding health and safety which also need addressing to prevent damage to the health of workers. Working in Excessively Hot Temperatures (or sometimes excessively cold) can cause physical and mental stress and it requires strict health and safety provision as well as the management making sure that the staff is wearing any necessary safety protection when it comes to clothing and equipment, such as breathing apparatus, for example. The length of time a worker can continually work within the confined space must also be managed properly.

The Responsibilities of an Employer

When it comes to working in confined spaces, the management must make provision to identify any hazards present, assess the risks posed by them and put procedures in place and take any necessary precautionary measures to protect the workforce. All of these considerations will usually be determined by the following:

  • What the work entails
  • The environment in which it is carried out
  • The materials and tools that are to be used
  • The competency and suitability of those employed to carry out the work
  • Emergency rescue or evacuation procedures

If the results of the Risk Assessment identify any possibility of serious injury or stress from working in the confined space then the Confined Spaces Regulations apply.

What Employers Must Do Next

The Confined Spaces Regulations cover a broad range of industries and how the legislation might apply to a particular location which has been deemed to be a confined space. However, in brief, management firstly needs to check if the work that’s involved could be carried out without the need to enter the confined space. Obviously, that isn’t always possible so the next step is to develop and manage a safe system of working practice which all people who are entering the confined space must adhere to. Each and every worker’s life could be at stake so everybody must be fully instructed and trained to ensure each of them know what their responsibilities are, the tasks they need to carry out and how to carry them out safely in accordance with the legislation.


A supervisor should be put into place to oversee and manage the entire operation. Their responsibilities include:

  • Ensuring workers are suitable for the role. This not only means that they have the necessary skills and training but also includes whether they’re medically fit as well as taking into account factors such as their physical build, propensity to suffer from claustrophobia and general fitness levels
  • Ensuring that the size of the entrance is sufficient for all workers and equipment to pass through safely
  • Ensuring that the confined space is as well ventilated as it can be
  • Testing air quality
  • The provision of any specialist tools and lighting and of breathing apparatus, if needed

Emergency Procedure

Any company in which work is going to be carried out within a confined space must have drawn up an emergency rescue and evacuation procedure and carry out practice drills. Communication systems also need to be set up so that communication can be carried out between those working in the confined space and those outside of it as well as how communication between the company and the emergency services is going to work. Time will also be a considerable factor when it comes to evacuating an area or initiating a rescue.

There is so much more contained within the Confined Spaces Regulations 1997 than can be covered here but it is important to read through the legislation carefully where work in confined spaces is necessary. Your life and that of others could depend on it.

Last Updated on 25 May 2021

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