Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Confined Spaces: Killers without Clues

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Confined Spaces: Killers without Clues

Article excerpt

When Vic Hillman told the management of a transportation firm a few years ago that they were in danger of experiencing a confined space accident, they thought he was being overly cautious.

Hillman, now director of industrial hygiene services for Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., had inspected the company's operations and discovered a number of potential confined space problems. One of them involved a tank that the company had to routinely clean out. Hillman presented the company with a guidance document for safe entry into confined spaces, but management rejected it as an unnecessary cost.

"Their contention was there was nothing in there that should be a hazard so they really shouldn't have to worry about it," recalled Hillman, chairman of the American Industrial Hygiene Assn.'s Confined Space Committee.

Management was wrong. Not long after that, an employee cleaning the tank was overcome, apparently by fumes from the cleaning materials he was using, and collapsed. His supervisor attempted a rescue, but was also overcome. Both men died.

Confined space incidents may claim as many as 300 to 500 workers a year, according to John Moran, director of safety and health for the Laborers' National Safety and Health Fund, and a former director of safety research at NIOSH. Tragically, nearly all of these deaths could be prevented simply by following accepted confined space safety procedures.

"About 95 percent of these fatalities are due to only five atmospheric hazards -- carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, flammable gases, and oxygen deficiency," says George Hutcheson, a confined space safety expert and industrial hygiene work director at John Deere Waterloo Works. "Those five gases should be easily detectable so, by and large, confined space incidents ought to be preventable."

That these incidents continue to claim lives stems not from our inability to detect these hazards with instruments, but from a failure to recognize danger with our own senses.

"When you walk into a situation that might be very lethal, you have no physical senses to let you know that you're in danger," says Hillman, noting that most of the atmospheric hazards present in confined spaces have no warning properties.

Along with the lack of recognition that they are entering a dangerous situation, says Hutcheson, is the false sense of security engendered by familiar surroundings. "People will do the same unsafe act over and over again with no problem," he explained. "Even people who are aware of the hazards can become complacent, and then there is that one time when they fail to take all the steps and they have a problem."

Essential Steps to Safety

A confined space safety program starts with the identification of potential trouble spots. That may sound elementary, but it is not easy. In the first place, what is a confined space? In its proposed standard, published in June 1989, OSHA defined a "permit required confined space" as an enclosed space that is:

* Large enough and configured so that an employee can bodily enter and perform assigned work.

* Has limited or restricted means for entry or exit.

* Is not designed for continuous employee occupancy; and

* Either contains or has a known potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere; contains a material with the potential for engulfment of an entrant; is configured inside so that an entrant could be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls, or a floor which slopes downward and tapers to a smaller cross-section; or contains any other recognized serious safety or health hazard.

While the OSHA definition serves as a useful guide, safety experts say in the case of confined spaces, appearances can be deceiving. Liberty Mutual's Hillman says it is important not just to look at the physical space, but also the activities that might take place in the space. …

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