Working in Confined Spaces – Dealing with Risks & Hazards

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. It’s important to recognise the risks and hazards associated with this type of working environment.

worker standing outside a confined space environment

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


What is 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

Common Hazards Working in Confined Spaces

There are many inherent hazards with work that is carried out in confined spaces, meaning proper training is very important.

A lack of oxygen or adequete ventilation which creates danger of asphyxiation is one of the most obvious. Poisonous gas or other noxious fumes can also build up in underground work. Confined spaces also have increased Risks of Fire and explosion.

Flooding or drowining hazards are also commonly encountered. All of these risks must be properly identified and managed to create a safe working environment.


Employers Responsibilities

Employers need to make sure that all equipment and safety processes are working properly and in accordance with the law to prevent a workplace accident.

There are also other day-to-day issues regarding health and safety which 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. Employers also need to make sure that the staff are wearing safety protection. This can include clothing and equipment, such as breathing apparatus The length of time a worker can continually work within the confined space must also be managed properly.


Assessing Risks of Working in Confined Spaces

When it comes to working in confined spaces, the workplace must make provision to identify any hazards in enclosed working spaces. The risks posed by them need to be assessed, and procedures put in place to keep workers safe. The assessment will begin by looking at:-

  • 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.


Working in Confined Spaces Legislation – Ensuring Compliance

The Confined Spaces Regulations cover a broad range of industries. It’s important to consider how the legislation might apply to a location which has been deemed to be a confined space as part of a risk asessment.

Where possible, working in confined spaces should be avoided. An assessment should be made to see if entering the space is needed. That isn’t always possible, so the next step is to create a safe system of working which all people who are entering the confined space must adhere to. Everybody must be trained to ensure they know what their responsibilities are, what tasks they need to carry ou,t and how to carry them out safely.


Supervision to Manage Risk

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. Factors such as their physical build, propensity to suffer from claustrophobia and general fitness levels should also be looked at.
  • Making sure that the entrance is large enough for all workers and equipment to pass through safely.
  • Making sure that the confined space has enough air flow.
  • Testing and monitoring air quality.
  • Making available specialist tools and lighting and or breathing gear, if needed.

Emergency Procedures

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.

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