Confined spaces are work environments that restrict employee movement and present special hazards to the health and safety of people who work in them. Special permits are required when workers must move through narrow openings and perform duties while confined to small areas. Examples of the confined work spaces include the following:
- Ship holds;
- Sub Cellars;
Many workplaces contain areas that are considered “confined spaces,” because they are large enough for workers to enter and do certain work, even though they may not be designed for occupancy by people.
A confined space also has limited availability of exits and entryways. As a practical matter, this means it can be difficult to exit in the event there is a problem. In addition, most confined spaces are not specifically designed to be continuously occupied.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) uses the term “permit-required confined space” and defines a confined space as a space that has any one or more of these characteristics:
- Contains or has the potential to develop a hazardous atmosphere, e.g. air containing toxic substances;
- Contains material that has the potential to engulf a person who is in the space;
- Has walls that converge inward or floors that slope downward and taper into a smaller area in which a person could be trapped, unable to escape;
- Contains any other recognized safety or health hazard;
- Houses such items as unguarded machinery, exposed live wires, or excessive heat.
Some spaces are not confined spaces per se, but they can turn into confined spaces if they are used for certain types of activities, such as welding or chemical cleaning. The concentration of oxygen in the air in a space can be reduced to dangerously low levels by welding. Toxic substances that threaten health can rise to dangerous concentrations in the ambient air during chemical cleaning.
In these situations, the room may become a confined space while that work is ongoing and will continue to be until the level of oxygen recovers or the toxic substances have dispersed. Another example is an area that is used to store toxic or combustible material that could ignite or explode. As long as the area is used for any of these purposes, anyone who works in or around them needs to understand that they are like confined spaces and need to be treated with the same degree of extra caution.
Even in workplaces that are classed as confined spaces, new, temporary hazardous situations may arise as a result of specific conditions. For example, a heavy rain can make a sewer even more dangerous and put workers at risk of drowning. It is interesting to note that per recent statistics, the majority of confined space fatalities occur among rescuers who respond to a problem.
What Kind of Injuries Are Common in a Confined Work Space?
Confined spaces can lead to employee injuries and even death. Examples of the hazards and resulting injuries that can result from conditions in confined work spaces include:
- Poor Air Quality: Exposure to air that is of poor quality can make a person sick and cause permanent adverse health effects. It can shorten lifespan and decrease a person’s lung capacity permanently. Examples of short-term symptoms include coughing, nasal congestion, body ache, and sore throat.
- Next, dryness and itchiness can develop on skin, and in the eyes, nose, and throat. Wheezing, chest pain, shortness of breath, headache, tiredness, and dizziness are the next symptoms to develop and indicate a serious issue. Finally, exposure over a long period of time aggravated asthma, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory illness, bronchitis, emphysema, and cancer.
- High and Low Oxygen Levels: Breathing air that has a concentration of oxygen that is too low results in nausea, vomiting, slowed movement, and possibly unconsciousness. Even less oxygen can lead to convulsions, then cessation of breathing, followed by cardiac arrest. These symptoms can occur immediately.
- Toxic Gases, Fumes or Vapours: These substances create a risk of fire and explosions which can cause burns, catastrophic injuries and potentially death;
- The Presence of Free-flowing Solids or Liquids: An example of this risk is the presence of .silage in an animal feed storage silo, which can possibly shift and bury a person, resulting in their death by suffocation;
- Chemical Exposures and Radiation: Exposure to harmful chemicals can cause all kinds of injuries, to the lungs from inhaling them to burns. Radiation can damage a person’s DNA and increase their risk of developing cancer;
- Fires and explosions caused by concentrations of gases, vapour or dust: Clearly fires and explosions can cause smoke inhalation injuries, burns and other catastrophic injuries;
- Hazardous noises: Sudden loud noises can cause hearing loss and so can lower levels of noise over time. Whether noise is hazardous depends on the volume of the noise and time of exposure. Prolonged exposure to seventy decibels or more of noise can cause irritability, distraction and hypertension over time. Longer exposure, e.g., 8 or more hours over the course of many days, to noises louder than 75 decibels causes gradual hearing loss.
- Uncontrolled Energy, e.g. Electrical Shock: Inflicting a strong electrical shock to a person can lead to their death;
- Other safety risks: Examples of other problems are structural weaknesses, and conditions that lead to slips and falls.
Not all confined spaces are especially dangerous to the health and safety of workers, but there are certain areas that require the use of extra caution. Some spaces are consistently very dangerous and potentially deadly. On the other hand, disasters can occur unexpectedly in places that seem safe. Because confined spaces are considered to be high risk spaces, employers and employees both are cautioned to be especially cautious. One step in preparing for work in confined spaces is to plan how everyone involved should respond in an emergency.
This is because confined spaces are, by definition, difficult to access and dangerous, which makes rescue operations especially risky. Incidents often occur when workers who have not received appropriate training and are not wearing the correct PPE enter a confined space in a rush to rescue colleagues.
The consequences can be severe. Rescuers can risk falls and suffocation. And confined spaces can also threaten workers and even members of the public who are near their entrances. These people could be exposed to several risks including exhaust fumes and explosions. So a risk assessment should take both workers and members of the public into account in a rescue plan.
Is an Employer Responsible for Injuries in a Confined Space?
Under regulations set by OSHA, employers are responsible for providing workspaces that are free from hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.
Every state in the U.S. has a workers’ compensation system that covers most workers who are injured in the course of their employment. So a worker who is injured or dies as a result of an accident in a confined space should be able to file a claim for compensation with their state workers’ compensation system.
Most importantly, workers who come within the protection of federal or state OSHA regulations have certain rights, which they can exercise in order to prevent injury to themselves and others, such as the following:
- Reporting: The right to report an illness or injury caused by an unsafe working condition without fear of retaliation from their employer, e.g., termination, suspension, and the like;
- Safe Workplaces: The right to work in a place that is not affected by unsafe machinery, dangerous levels of exposure to toxic chemicals and similar hazards;
- Safety Equipment: The right to be equipped with safety equipment like gloves, goggles and hearing protection;
- Investigation: The right to request an OSHA investigation of dangerous conditions in the workplace;
- Access to Reports: The right to view reports of threats or dangers that an OSHA investigation revealed;
- Refuse to Work: The right to refuse to work in a site that is unsafe or dangerous;
- Training: The right to be trained regarding OSHA compliance and to receive educational resources regarding compliance with OSHA requirements.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
If you are concerned about the precautions your employer is taking or not taking in the confined spaces in which you work and want to take steps to protect yourself and your co-workers, you should consult an employment lawyer to talk about your rights.
If you have been injured while working in a confined space, you should speak with an experienced workers’ compensation attorney. An attorney can represent you if you have been injured and need to file a claim with your state’s workers’ compensation system.