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Working in confined spaces

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Credit: Istock

Every year a number of workers are seriously injured or die while working in confined spaces, says Julia Kulinski

Julia Kulinski
Julia Kulinski is a partner at Beaver Pest Control LLP

19 May 2016 | By Julia Kulinski

1. What is a confined space?
A confined space is a place that is substantially enclosed, and where serious injury can occur through hazardous substances or conditions within the place or nearby (e.g. a lack of oxygen). Examples include:

  • Ductwork;
  • Poorly ventilated rooms;
  • Some enclosed rooms (particularly plant rooms) and compartments within them;
  • Building voids;
  • Storage tanks;
  • Enclosed drains;
  • Silos;
  • Sewers; and
  • Vats.

2. What are the risks?
Some of the more commonly found risks that can occur when working in confined spaces in buildings are:

  • Hot conditions that can cause the body to become overheated;
  • Fire and/or explosions;
  • Poisonous gas, fume or vapours;
  • Liquids and solids can fill a space suddenly when disturbed; and
  • Dust can be present in large quantities, which can cause asphyxiation.

Lack of oxygen can be caused in a number of ways, such as a reaction of some soils and the oxygen, or the combination of water and chalk or limestone can produce carbon dioxide, which displaces air. Rust inside steel tanks can also cause a lack of oxygen.

3. What rules should I comply with?
If the space is fully or substantially enclosed and there are any of the following risks – drowning, loss of consciousness because of an increase in body temperature or from gas, vapours, fumes or a lack of oxygen, the potential of a fire or explosion, or the potential to be trapped and asphyxiated by free flowing solids – then this space will fall under the Confined Space Regulations 1997.  

4. What are FM/dutyholder duties?
Regulation 4 Confined Space Regulations 1997 states:

(1) No person at work shall enter a confined space to carry out work for any purpose unless it is not reasonably practicable to achieve that purpose without such entry.

(70) Dutyholders should not enter a confined space and should prevent employees, or others who are to any extent within their control, such as contractors, from entering or working inside a confined space where it is reasonably practicable to thoroughly undertake the work without entering the space.

(71) In every situation, the dutyholder must consider what measures can be taken to enable the work to be carried out properly without the need to enter the confined space. The measures might involve modifying the confined space itself to avoid the need for entry, or to enable the work to be undertaken from outside the space. In many cases it will involve modifying working practices.

If the confined space requires an inspection, a risk assessment by a competent person must be carried out before the inspection takes place. The Confined Spaces Regulations 1997 will apply if the assessment shows that there is a risk of serious injury.

Depending on the outcome of the risk assessment, you are likely to require some or all of the following systems. A safe system of work (in writing) may form the basis of your permit to work. The safe system of work should contain some of the main elements below as a minimum:

  1. Supervisor – should be present while work is being carried out;
  2. Competence – are operatives adequately trained and experienced?
  3. Communications;
  4. Testing the atmosphere;
  5. Removal of residues;
  6. PPE & RPE;
  7. Isolation from mechanical and electrical equipment, as well as gases, liquids, and other materials;
  8. Escape plan for emergencies;
  9. Breathing apparatus;
  10. Access & egress;
  11. Fire prevention; and
  12. Gas supplied by pipes and hoses.
5. Pest control in confined spaces
The most common pests are: 
  • Oriental cockroaches – they are attracted to the dark and humid conditions in confined spaces;
  • Mosquitos – found in stagnant standing water;
  • Drain flies – found in stagnant standing water;
  • Rodents; and
  • Stored product insects – common in grain silos.

6. What do sub-contractors need?
When working in confined spaces, we work to the client’s safe systems of work although we complete our own risk assessments and method statements. We also provide breathing apparatus for some sites. We have provided a typical method statement of the process, which our technicians follow while working in a confined space.

1. Report to client on site;
2. Read/sign risk assessment/method statement;
3. Obtain permit to work and access keys;
4. Carry out radio checks including battery levels;
5. Escape kits are inspected and oxygen gauge checked;
6. Air flow monitor switched on and calibration test checked;
7. Collect all other equipment including other PPE and proceed to opening of confined space;
8. Warning signs are placed on entry and exit and are updated with dates and times;
9. Down team enter the area together to carry out works;
10. Top man will radio check every 10 mins to ensure all is well;
11. Exit confined space, ensure all is secure and well;
12. Report to client; and
13. Sign out and leave site.

Julia Kulinski is a partner at Beaver Pest Control LLP