Attending to Confined Spaces
Many workplaces contain spaces that are considered “confined” because their configurations hinder the activities of employees who must enter, work in, and exit them. According to OSHA, a confined space has limited or restricted means for entry or exit, and it is not designed for continuous employee occupancy.
Confined space attendants are the lifeline to safety for confined space entrants. That makes the attendant’s job a crucial responsibility- one that only well-trained, reliable, and highly motivated employees can handle. Often, the attendant position is assigned to the least experienced person, or even an employee pulled from another job – given a couple minutes of direction and pointed toward the hole. If this is the way of thinking in your workplace, you have another think coming.
The confined space attendant’s primary responsibility is the safety of the entrants. That means attendants must:
- Be knowledgeable about all the potential hazards of the confined space being entered
- Be competent enough to detect the effects of exposure to confined space hazards
- Remain vigilant at the entry point and monitor activities inside the space, AND ALSO be aware of activity outside of the space that might have impact inside. They cannot become distracted by cell phones, text messaging or other unrelated outside activity.
- Remain in continuous contact with all entrants
- Be able to perform non-entry rescue and summon the rescue team
Keeping Track of Entrants
Attendants must continuously observe entrants without being distracted for a second. It’s a job that requires total attention and complete concentration. It’s the attendant’s job to maintain an accurate count of entrants, logging the names of entrants and the time each one enters and exits the space. The attendant’s log should also contain the date of the work, time started, location of the space, entry permit number, name of attendant, starting and ending time, and the name of the relief attendant.
Of course, in addition to keeping track of what goes on in the space, the attendant also needs to keep an eye on what’s going on outside the space and watch for emergencies such as fires or chemical spills that could require entrants to evacuate.
Communicating With Entrants
Maintaining continuous communication with entrants is another very important aspect of the attendant’s job. Attendants should always know what each entrant is doing. Attendants should also talk to entrants and hear their responses, listening for possible effects of exposure to confined space hazards, such as slurred speech, giddy response, or no response at all.
For small spaces in which the work being done is not noisy, voice communication is probably adequate. For larger spaces, radio or walkie-talkie communication is necessary. For noisy spaces, communication equipment should feature a light or vibration feature so that entrants know the attendant is trying to communicate with them.
If communication fails, the entrant must immediately evacuate the space. An emergency signal such as a horn, flashing light, or two pulls on the entrant’s retrieval line should be used in the event communication equipment fails.
Monitoring the Space
Most confined space atmospheres must be evaluated for potential hazards before authorized entrants are allowed to enter the space. Spaces must also be monitored at various intervals while the space is occupied. Monitoring equipment tests for oxygen content, combustibility or flammability, and toxic atmospheres.
If attendants are responsible for monitoring, they must be thoroughly trained to operate the equipment properly and evaluate results accurately. Even if another employee does the monitoring, the attendant should be involved in the process and made aware of any changing conditions.
Attendants must also monitor ventilation equipment to make sure it continues to operate properly. And attendants should be certain that chemical vapors and vehicle exhaust are kept well away from the intake of ventilation equipment.
An attendant must be on duty at all times while entrants are inside a confined space. Attendants can never leave their posts–even for a moment–without being relieved by another attendant.
Keeping Out Unauthorized Personnel
While on duty, attendants must make sure that no unauthorized personnel approach the area or enter the space. If unauthorized people approach, the attendant has to immediately warn them to stay away from the entry area and entry operations. If quick compliance is not initiated or warnings are ignored, the attendant should contact the entry supervisor or facility security for help dealing with the situation.
The primary responsibility is still monitoring those inside the enclosed space, and the attendant must not let an intruder distract them from that task. If an unauthorized person in any way endangers the operation or refuses to clear the area, and no assistance is readily available, the attendant should call for an immediate evacuation of entrants from the confined space.
If the confined space being entered is in a known high traffic area, there should be at least two attendants assigned. While one is tasked with direct monitoring of the the entrants, the other is available to keep the area clear and relieve the other if needed.
The attendant must call for an evacuation of all entrants if:
- A prohibited condition is detected (such as when monitoring indicates an unsafe oxygen level or a concentration of flammable gas)
- An entrant shows effects of hazard exposure
- A situation outside the space could endanger entrants (such as a fire or chemical release)
- Communication between attendant and entrants is lost
- The attendant must leave his/her post because of an emergency and no relief attendant is available
“Getting the job done” should never supersede these directives. Anything less than immediate action when these conditions exist could result in serious injury, illness or even death.
Next to self-rescue by entrants in an emergency, non-entry rescue is the preferred method. Entry rescue should always be a last resort.
Attendants must be trained to retrieve an unconscious or disabled worker while remaining outside the space, using a mechanical device and the retrieval line attached to the entrant’s body harness. Attendants should only try non-entry rescue if they can confirm visually or verbally that the worker can be moved safely. If such confirmation cannot be made, the attendant must immediately summon the rescue team to perform an entry rescue.
The attendant’s role during confined space entry is critical for successful completion of the task. They must be cognizant of their role in insuring the safety and well being of those that enter. Whether the job itself is successfully completed or not is never their concern. Success to them is the safe exit of those that enter.
- Confined Space Attendants – More than just a “Hole-Watch” (rocorescue.com)
- Entry to Confined Space (expertscolumn.com)
- Confined Space Entry Hazards Cause Worker Deaths (unitedallianceservices.typepad.com)
- Seven workers die in Confined Space Accident at Corona Brewery (nfpatoday.blog.nfpa.org)
- Permit-required Confined Spaces OSHA Quick Card (osha.gov)