Working and training for confined spaces

It is not always easy to identify what constitutes a confined space. It is often the process that takes place in that area and the surrounding environment that creates the hazards within the confined space reports Tina Lillington of WTI.

In the 1960s the only legislation that covered the issues surrounding confined spaces was the Factories Act. The regulations were aimed primarily at specific environments and was narrow in its approach. In recent years the legislation has expanded to take into account the wider picture of working in confined environments.

safe working procedures must be followed in confined spaces

The Health and Safety at Work Act in the 1970’s went some way to addressing the shortcomings of the Factories Act, employers now had a duty to provide a safe environment with safe access and egress Ð something vital when working in a confined space. Even with this legislation fatalities have been as high as 15 deaths each year including multiple deaths where one person is overcome, and an untrained person then attempts to rescue them and perished themselves.

The new Confined Spaces Regulations has been warmly welcomed by industry. These regulations have been accompanies by an approved code of practice (ACoP). The ACoP gives organisations guidance and advice for managing their confined spaces working through safe systems of work and risk assessment.

Following an incident in October 1996, a local authority has subsequently been fined a record sum of £190,000. The incident involved the death of two people whilst working in a confined space. They had no safe system of work, no safety equipment or protective clothing, nor were they trained in hazards associated with confined spaces.

A senior Health and Safety Executive director stated “… never enter unless absolutely unavoidable … if you do need to enter the risks must be carefully assessed and a safe system of work put in place. People must be fully trained, properly supervised and provided with the right safety equipment.”

A confined space is not necessarily a small area. Even a town centre can become a confined space as shown in the Autumn of 1997 following chlorine leak in a town centre swimming pool. The chaos was substantial, with hundreds of members of the public affected and rushed to the local accident and emergency unit. Did the shopping centre become a confined space with the introduction of a toxic gas?

A much smaller example of a confined space is a lone worker who was laying carpet tiles in a small basement using an adhesive without adequate ventilation. He was overcome by fumes and found dead two days later. Without an effective risk assessment this problem was not identified.

Every company is required, under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, to carry out risk assessments. This process identifies the hazards and risks and the people who may be affected by these activities.

The route to effective management of risk assessments can be achieved by selecting and training staff with the right qualities and providing them with the right tools to carry out the task. There are many examples that can be quoted, but the ability to identify potential confined spaces and to establish safe working procedures around them rests with the employer and employee.

The Confined Space Regulations ask “… is there a foreseeable risk of serious injury…”, if the answer is yes then these new regulations apply.

Competency is a difficult thing to measure. Health and Safety Executive guidance suggest that training and refresher training go towards making an individual competent. The training should include relevant experience, the inspection and use of personal protective equipment, the use and working of gas detection equipment, including the scope and limitations of the units. The use and wearing of breathing apparatus and the use of any specialist equipment needed to carry out the job safely and successfully should also be a consideration when identifying the training needs of employees.

A major contribution towards becoming competent is training. The importance of this activity is indicated in legislation and reinforced by the HSE. Professional training programmes give staff the opportunity to practice in a safe and realistic environment.

Managers with responsibility for staff working in confined spaces can combine the training process with experience and the employer can then nominate the staff competent to enter and work in confined spaces in live situations.

Training should encompass the use of risk assessment techniques and familiarisation with the writing and interpretation of permit to work systems. The whole team must be aware of the dangers – not just the individuals entering the space. The new regulations also highlight the consideration for rescue techniques and resuscitation.

Training goes a long way to promoting the health and safety culture of a company. It also has an effect on the efficiency of a business. As a result of training there are fewer accidents and therefore reduced periods of downtime owing to employee illness. Often a financial benefit is the reduction in insurance premiums and private health premiums because of lower claims.

The new Confined Space Regulations have helped to clarify the responsibilities of companies with respect to confined space working practices. Best business practices aim to promote a safe environment for all people who come into contact with confined spaces. A major contribution to this goal is the on-going commitment to train staff in all areas connected with confined space working.

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