Confined Spaces: Don’t Be Left Alone

By: Dave Wagner, Contributor

Best practices for confined spaces recommend that continuous monitoring is extended to the atmosphere and environment in the space. Work performed inside a confined space can cause conditions inside the space to change continuously. (photo courtesy Adobe Stock Images)

Have you ever felt alone in a crowd? Surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of people, yet in your own thoughts; no one is there. You feel more likely to be unnoticed, ignored and trampled by the masses if you need assistance than you are to be rescued. In your mind, you are confined.

It takes me back to that first confined space experience, a time before there was any true recognition of the hazards of working in such a place. A 24-inch manway, standing on planks suspended across two 36-inch openings that let water from the Monongahela rush into and through the wall of 10,000 condenser tubes in front of me; designed to cool the steam that turned the 300-megawatt turbine generator sitting directly above it all.

I was there with two others beside me every day for a week. No one on the other side of the hatch kept watch over me; there was no communication to anyone outside. Moreover, I had no confidence that, if I collapsed or slipped from the plank, the other two workers would even notice. I had no belief at all that, if the same happened to one of them, I would notice either—and if I did, that I would be able to do anything about it. It was never intended to be that way, but I was alone.

Thankfully, confined space laws today do not allow it to be that way.

Confined Spaces Today & Staying Connected

Regulations universally require an attendant to keep watch over confined space activities. Many would debate the point, but the attendant doesn’t necessarily have to be stationed within arms-length of the workers or even immediately outside the space. Let’s face it; many confined spaces are complex, and it is virtually, if not literally, impossible for someone to keep eyes set on everyone doing work inside without breaking the entry plane themselves. And, even then, it may not be possible.

But someone, somewhere, somehow, must be keeping watch over the work being done in the space and must be able to lend a hand or summon help if assistance is needed.

Regulations dictate continuous monitoring of confined space operations. Best practices recommend that continuous monitoring is extended to the atmosphere and environment in the space. The work performed inside a confined space can cause the conditions inside the space to change continuously.

The only way to stay on top of those changing conditions is to monitor them continuously. Many claim they do this by having an attendant stationed outside, with a gas monitor dropping a tube or extending a probe into the space. This is no more adequate than asking a hole-watch to keep his eyes on everything happening in the space from the outside.

The best way to actively monitor the atmosphere as it is affecting the workers inside the space is to have a monitor attached to those workers—every one of them. Where the worker goes, where the worker breathes, the monitor goes with them. And yet, if the gas monitor alarms and no one outside the space hears it, did it really alarm or make a sound? How do we ensure that everyone outside the space has a clear understanding of what is going on inside the space?

Communication Will Always Be Key

There should never be a reason for workers to feel alone in a confined space. Make sure workers have the right tools to work safely, without worry. (photo courtesy Adobe Stock Images)

Communication from within confined spaces is not an elementary problem. The structure and configuration of the space often makes communications difficult. The work inside the space is often too loud to allow for direct voice communication from outside and often doesn’t let someone outside a space hear an alarm if one does occur.

Two-way radio communication is often not available from the inside out or from the depth of a space to the surface. Many would love to rely on cellular technology, but even if it could provide reliable signal inside a confined space environment, the requirements for intrinsic safety prohibit most standard cellular devices. Communication devices must be able to repeat and transmit the signal from the deepest part of a space to the world outside.

Mesh network radio technologies allow signals from multiple devices to be repeated through other devices to find a pathway to the end destination. Where internal structure and obstacles block communication, or the length of the space is simply too far to communicate from end-to-end, the repeating technology allows the signal to navigate around obstructions and extend distance dramatically. Gas detectors equipped with wireless, repeating communication technology provide data sharing and peer-to-peer communication, along with acting as a communication bridge to a targeted endpoint.

If an entrant’s gas detector alarms, or a particular entrant has been incapacitated in anyway, the gas alarm, man-down alarm or panic/SOS signal is received by the other entrants—making them aware of whatever danger exists around them. Those signals will tell them whose device has alarmed; why it has alarmed; and allow them to monitor gas readings from the alarming device on their own monitor. This tells the entrant immediately what it is they need to assist their teammate or if they need to evacuate the space. At the same time, the alarms and work conditions can be seen by an attendant monitoring outside the space—in a control room, site operations center or anywhere necessary to know that workers are performing their duties in safety.

Camera systems are also available that provide visual awareness into the work taking place within a confined space. What the attendant stationed outside a space may not be able to see, a well-placed camera or cameras inside can. Body camera technology widely used in other applications could bring the inside out and provide a remote picture of the actual work and any physical hazards that are encountered as the work takes place, exactly where it is taking place.

Always Have Their Backs

How comforting would it have been in 1984, when I entered that first confined space, if the rules and tools that I have discussed here would have been available? It would have helped knowing that every breath I took was monitored by a high-quality gas detector; I’d be assured that others working with me would be aware if I was in danger and in need of assistance. I’d have had confidence that responsible people on the outside would both see and hear if any one of us needed their help—and why.

There should never be a reason today to feel alone in a confined space. Make sure when your workers make their next entry that they have the right tools—and that someone always has their backs.

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