Understanding the dangers of confined spaces

Many professions will require individuals to operate in confined environments and this means companies that ask this of their staff must be fully up to date regarding an understanding of both their legal responsibilities and the dangers that this practice can bring.

Know the dangers of working in confined areas

Problems that in a normal working environment might not prove too hazardous can quickly become so when working in a confined area, as difficulties can arise in terms of restricted movement, poor visibility, build-up of toxic materials or issues like fire.

A lack of oxygen in an enclosed environment is one of the most serious issues businesses and staff working in enclosed environments need to be aware of, as asphyxiation can quickly take hold if measures are not put in place to ensure good oxygen flow and ventilation at all times.

Meanwhile, high concentrations of dust can lead to respiratory ailments if staff are not provided the necessary protective clothing and equipment, while some liquids or solids can quickly fill a space with potentially harmful gases if disturbed and this is another issue all workers need to be aware of.

Machinery can also present a risk to workers in confined areas, as it may require special precautions, such as dust extraction or grounding to reduce the chances of sparks in areas that may be inappropriate for the use of traditional safety requirements.


What the law states

A consultation is currently underway regarding the creation of a revised version of the Approved Code of Practice (L101) relating to the Confined Spaces Regulations 1997, with interested parties having until September 30th to provide their responses.

At present, the law states that all individuals expected to work in confined spaces should be provided with a thorough risk assessment, including details of the actual task involved, the working environment, any risks associated with materials or tools, the suitability of individuals completing the work and arrangements for their emergency rescue if required.

Safe systems of work should be implemented at all times, and if companies can avoid sending members of staff into enclosed or confined areas then they should ensure they do so. No individual should be asked to work in a confined space unless it is absolutely necessary.


How things can easily go wrong

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) recently prosecuted South Yorkshire foundry Sheffield Forgemasters after three members of staff tragically lost their lives after venturing into a confined area that had become saturated with carbon dioxide.

An employee of the foundry was killed in May 2008 when an underground bunker was filled with a fire-extinguishing mist that caused him to pass out.

Labourer Brian Wilkins was overcome by carbon dioxide while working in an enclosed environment, with an investigation by the HSE later revealing fire alarms had been accidentally set off by his use of cutting equipment in the confined space.

This led to the release of carbon dioxide by the facility’s fire suppression systems and despite four workers attempting to reach Mr Wilkins, they were unable to do so as a result of being overcome by the poisonous gas themselves.

He was recovered in an unconscious state once the gas cleared, but the labourer sadly died on his way to hospital.

The company was fined GBP 120,000 and ordered to pay GBP 125,000 in costs after pleading guilty to a breach of Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 – highlighting the considerable financial risk for businesses associated with a lack of proper planning for work in confined spaces.

After the hearing, HSE inspector Jill Thompson commented: “Sheffield Forgemasters had given no thought to the risks associated with the task being undertaken by Mr Wilkins, nor had they provided emergency rescue equipment.

“This case shows how important it is for companies to effectively risk assess work activities, looking at how the work will be carried out and in what circumstances.”

She added that multiple fatalities can occur when the risks associated with confined spaces are not taken seriously, as other workers can venture into areas where a colleague has fallen into trouble without necessarily having a full understanding of what has happened, leading to further deaths.

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Understanding the dangers of confined spaces
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