No room for error
25 November 2021
Brian Grunes offers guidance on the challenges of confined space working and the recent changes to the City & Guilds training accreditation.
What defines a confined space working environment and why are they dangerous?
The answer to this question may appear obvious, many confined spaces can be reasonably easy to identify and understand. Tanks, vessels, sewers among others are known to be confined spaces to people working in those environments; however, the existence of confined spaces in commercial or non–industrial premises are often less well recognised. Service ducts, lofts and void spaces, plant rooms or poorly ventilated rooms can be confined spaces too and are often found in commercial buildings, hospitals, universities and residential dwellings. Some confined spaces will also develop during construction, or when work activities such as welding or cleaning are being carried out.
Working in confined spaces is an often misunderstood area of safety. These environments could expose people to hazards that could cause serious injury due to fire or explosion; loss of consciousness arising from increased body temperature; loss of consciousness or asphyxiation arising from gas, fume, vapour, or lack of oxygen; drowning from an increase in the level of a liquid and asphyxiation arising from a free-flowing solid or being unable to reach a respirable environment. In order to work safely in confined spaces, it requires a thorough understanding of the hazards that may be present and how to manage the risks.
How should you prepare for confined space working?
Once you have identified that work will be undertaken in a confined space it is important that the right controls are put in place. The Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) L1010 Safe Working in Confined Spaces provides details on the relevant provisions that must be considered. This includes an initial risk assessment that prioritises the identification of ‘measures needed so that work in confined spaces can be avoided’1. The parameters for making the decision to enter or employ an alternative external method are ‘reasonably practicable’. Examples of alternative reasonably practicable external methods include automatic tank cleaning systems, electronic survey equipment for inspections, long handle tools, remote operated valves and there are many more. The precautions required in a safe system of work will depend on the nature of the confined space and the results of a risk assessment.
An effective risk assessment should consider conditions and potential hazards in three general areas:
The current condition of the work environment. Consider factors such as corrosion, areas that might be unstable, the previous contents and residues, contamination from other areas which can often be some distance away, any condition that may cause oxygen deficiency or enrichment and the physical layout of the area.
Hazards and conditions created by the work in the confined space. This might include fumes or vapours from cleaning materials, the introduction of a source of ignition such as electrical equipment or work that increases the temperature.
Hazards that are outside the space but can create a danger to people working in the area. Examples might include the unintended release of gases or liquids through pipe-work that is not adequately isolated, gases that drift in from adjacent plants and processes, or the unintended activation of any machinery in the confined space that isn’t adequately isolated.
If alternative external methods are not viable, then taking the necessary precautions for safe working in a confined space, which will include training, supervision, ensuring safe access and egress, testing and monitoring the atmosphere before and during the procedure, having a reliable communications system in place and suitable equipment for the job is essential. In the event of an accident, you would need to show you have followed the code or complied with the law in some other way otherwise a court will find you at fault.
What kind of training is needed for confined space working?
The previously highlighted dangers and processes of confined space working demonstrate the essential nature of training for those managing or supervising confined space teams as well as those working in confined spaces and any potential rescue and recovery teams. Options range from Confined Space Awareness training, through Low, Medium and High-Risk courses, plus Rescue Management and training covering the selection and maintenance of equipment involved in safe confined space working, such as gas monitors, breathing apparatus and personal protective equipment. If the risks are assessed to be too high or the job too complex for in-house teams, you should consider outsourcing jobs to confined space services experts.
City & Guilds accreditations updates
Following the changes made in 2020 to the National Occupational Standards (NOS) for Confined Spaces, City & Guilds reviewed their Confined Space qualifications and announced a new suite that became available earlier this year. The new 6160 suite of qualifications replaces the existing 6150. These new qualifications are available now, with the existing qualifications (6150) being available until 31st December 2021. For anyone holding a current 6150 qualification, it will remain valid for three years from its completion so there’s no need to undertake the new 6160 qualification until it’s due to expire.
What are the next steps to reducing confined spaces working risks?
The tragically high statistics regarding fatalities or serious injuries from working in confined spaces despite stringent health and safety legislation highlights the high-risk nature of this type of work. Managers and supervisors, workers and rescue crews all need a high standard of training and a robust practical understanding to effectively mitigate risks and prepare for any and all scenarios.
A well-trained team is prepared for all eventualities. That is the best step forward to reducing confined space working risks.
1 http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/priced/l101.pdf - p.13
Brian Grunes is confined space training expert at Arco Professional Safety Services. For more information, visit www.arco.co.uk