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Identifying confined space risks

10 February 2016

Ken Smith, senior health and safety consultant at Arco offers guidance on the procedures and training to help prevent confined space accidents in the workplace

A significant number of people are killed or seriously injured in confined spaces each year in the UK. This happens in a wide range of industries, including manufacturing, sewage work and agriculture. Those killed include both those working in the confined space and those who try to rescue them without the correct training and equipment. In fact, around 40% of confined spaces deaths involve people trying to rescue those already trapped or injured. Despite stringent health and safety measures across most workplaces, these statistics highlight that confined space working still poses a considerable threat to employees today.

The existence of confined spaces in some workplace environments is reasonably easy to identify and understand. Tanks, vessels, sewers and the like are known to be confined spaces to people in the industry; however the existence of confined spaces in commercial or non–industrial premises is less well known. Service ducts, loft and void spaces, plant rooms or poorly ventilated rooms are confined spaces often found in commercial buildings, hospitals, universities and residential dwellings. Some confined spaces will also develop during construction, or when work such as welding or cleaning is being carried out. These spaces are just as hazardous as those found in industrial environments and demonstrate that systems of safe working must be put in place in every environment.

In terms of legislation in the UK, the Confined Space Regulations 1997 is the legislation specifically pertaining to the identification and management of confined space working. The regulations and the Approved Code of Practice must be considered before entering a confined space. Additionally, the requirements of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 must also be considered in the preparation of any risk assessment and safe system of work including training. Other legislation may also be relevant depending on the work to be carried out in the confined space, for example where hazardous substances are being used, or there is a requirement for manual handling, electrical work or work from height.

The Confined Space Regulations 1997 requires employers to find a reasonably practicable method of completing work in the confined space without entry. This might be remote sampling, inspection or cleaning. However, when the work cannot be achieved by a reasonably practicable remote or outside system, then a safe system of work must be developed.

The safe system of work will begin by a competent and experienced person completing a risk assessment. Regular risk assessments are a fundamental requirement of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999; enabling employers to anticipate, recognise and prevent occupational health and safety hazards within the workplace. The Approved Code of Practice to the Confined Spaces Regulations 1997 states that, ‘the priority when carrying out a risk assessment is to identify the measures needed so that work in confined spaces can be avoided’. Where confined space working cannot be avoided, ‘then it is necessary to determine what measures need to be taken to secure a safe system for working’. Through assessing the risks connected when entering or working in the confined space, the employer or self employed worker can then make an informed decision on what specific training, PPE and safety equipment is needed to safeguard employees.

Practical training covers entry (vertical and horizontal), suitability checks (i.e. for claustrophobia), selection and use of equipment, developing a safe working system and the initiation of self-rescue or full rescue. Simulation exercises give trainees the necessary skills and confidence needed to work in confined space environments.

Refresher training will be required periodically and its timing will depend on the continued experience after initial training. Additionally, personnel will need training on the use of equipment involved in safe confined space entry such as gas monitors, breathing apparatus and personal protective equipment.

The importance of identifying and understanding the risks, completing risk assessments and implementing regular realistic training  cannot be underestimated when it comes to protecting workers. By following the guidance above, employers can rest assured that they are safeguarding the health of their employees whilst also significantly reducing the number of confined space accidents in the workplace.