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Tips for working safely in a confined space

Date posted: 19 September 2013

Every year a number of people are killed or seriously injured in confined spaces, including people working in the space themselves, and those who try to rescue them without the proper training and equipment.

On an industrial level there are lots of obvious confined spaces where people work that could prove hazardous, such as storage tanks, silos, enclosed drains, sewers and reaction vessels. But even on a domestic scale you might find yourself working in a confined space such as an unventilated basement or poorly ventilated room.

If you have no choice but to work in an enclosed area – whether it be very small and restrictive in terms of space, or much larger but still enclosed – there may be some work hazards that you need to consider before you get stuck into the job. It might be that there is a risk of potential fire, for example, or noxious fumes, flooding, or reduced oxygen levels.

In an ideal world we would all avoid working in confined spaces entirely, but since this is not always practical you should:

  • try to complete as much of the work as possible from outside; and
  • make sure once you enter the confined space that you plan and follow a safe system of work – and know exactly what to do if an emergency does arise.

Identifying hazards

Some of the dangers may be obvious and present all the time, but others may only arise once you start work, or during particular stages of the work, for example if you introduce certain machinery; create gas, fumes or vapours from welding; or use volatile and flammable solvents or adhesives.

Don't forget to assess:

  • the work that is being carried out
  • the working environment
  • any working materials or tools that will be used
  • whether you or anyone else involved has the necessary skills to carry out the task competently
  • the arrangements for emergency evacuation or rescue

Once you have identified the obvious and more hidden risks involved in all of these aspects of the work, you may be able to take practical steps to reduce any risk to your safety, or to that of anyone working alongside you.

Practical steps

Once you have identified the risks in your specific enclosed environment, you can start to look at ways that you can control them.

This might simply involve planning your emergency exit properly in case problems do arise, and making sure that the route is never blocked while you are working.

Or it may be possible to hire a gas compound, a chemical site box, a cable avoidance tool, ventilation, breathing apparatus, fire protective clothing, or other specialist equipment that can protect you from specific hazards.

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