The confined space safety incident we avoided
By Painters USA Team
— Last updated September 19, 2022
This is a story about avoiding a confined space safety hazard, even when it requires taking precautions that seem like an extra, unwanted burden. Taking precautions are a time-saving, money-saving, walk in the park compared to the possible burden of a serious worker injury or fatality.
Confined space definition and statistics
What is confined space?
Confined space is defined as space with limited means of entry and exit, unfavorable natural ventilation that could contain or produce dangerous air contaminants, and not intended for continuous occupancy.
Confined space safety hazards
Confined space safety hazards maybe atmospheric or physical:
- Atmospheric hazards include insufficient oxygen, toxic air, or an explosive atmosphere.
- Physical hazards involve workers falling, being crushed or buried, or drowning.
While physical hazards are generally obvious because they can be seen, atmospheric hazards can go unnoticed and undetected until they reach potentially dangerous levels.
Confined space fatality statistics
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), 1,030 workers died from occupational injuries involving a confined space between 2011 and 2018. While not a staggering number, any incident that results in death is an irrevocable tragedy with devastating consequences to the organizations, families, and communities that are impacted.
Additional findings of NIOSH investigations of confined space incidents as reported by Occupational Health & Safety:
- 85% of the time a supervisor was present.
- 29% of fatalities were supervisors.
- 60% of rescuers died.
- 31% had written confined space entry procedures.
- 0% used those written procedures.
- 0% had a rescue plan.
- 0% of the spaces were tested prior to entry.
- 0% were adequately ventilated.
Painters USA is acutely aware of the safety hazards present in any confined space. We will do whatever is necessary to protect our workers, which in turn protects our client, as this story explains.
When stuff happens (and it does happen)
A recent concrete grinding / refinishing / coating project for a client in the wastewater treatment industry ended up getting sidetracked by an unforeseen incident. Our crew arrived at the facility as scheduled on a Friday to begin the project, only to find that the client had just received an unplanned delivery of contaminated water to the bay adjacent to where we were working. To make matters worse, the driver had spilled some of the potentially toxic load.
In addition, our project manager felt the limited entrance and egress into a containment area where we were working warranted what’s known as a confined space permit. This permit establishes the appropriate conditions for entering and working in a particular confined space. Not all of the space we were working on for this client required such permitting, just this one specific area.
Our project manager immediately contacted Painters USA Safety Director Darren Lottes to inform him of the situation. Together they agreed to contact our client representative to coordinate the confined space change. We can’t say the client was happy. Time was of the essence, as the work was part of a bigger planned shutdown. Rescheduling later was not an option.
Yet workplace safety always takes precedence. Not only are we fiercely protective of our employees; Painters USA is adamant about protecting our clients as well.
We worked with this client’s safety manager to set entry requirements and implement gas-monitoring and ventilation solutions for the confined space. We scrambled to complete the project on-time, meeting quality standards and expectations while also protecting our workers and our client's facility from potential harm.
Why confined space planning matters
Our clients are not directly responsible for the health and welfare of Painters USA’s employees, yet no business can afford a workplace safety incident of any kind.
Most of them appreciate the fact that we always put safety first. The financial, legal, and PR downsides of a safety incident at their facility is bad for business. And when workplace safety and facility conditions like confined spaces are considered early in the planning process, safety doesn’t have to take extra time.
This particular project was planned to take 3 days. Even with the confined space permitting delay, Painters USA was able to complete the work within the shutdown period by working longer hours.
That said, if your maintenance project involves confined space with potential physical and/or atmospheric safety hazards, it’s in the best interest of your business to investigate the need for confined space permitting in advance. While we got the work done on schedule, it took additional, unplanned overtime, which resulted in additional work order expenses for the client that could have been avoided.
More about confined space
According to OSHA, permit space is a confined area with one or more of the following features:
- Hazardous atmosphere due to gasses, vapors or fumes;
- Stored materials (like grain) that can engulf a person;
- Features like converging walls or sloping floors;
- Any other feature that could pose a serious safety or health hazard.
EHS Today, the top magazine for environmental, health and safety management professionals, has identified several common mistakes that get made about confined space, including:
- Not knowing OSHA permitting standards and recommendations.
- Relying on human senses, especially smell, instead of monitoring devices.
- Disregarding the importance of worker awareness and training.
Confined space permitting is not always needed and it does require some advanced planning; but it’s an excellent, and sometimes necessary, safeguard and risk management tool.
See the entire list of common mistakes at the EHS Today website.
More about hazardous atmospheres
Bad atmospheric quality like poor oxygen levels or the presence of noxious vapors can create serious health hazards, even death, because they are not easy to detect.
OSHA defines a "hazardous atmosphere" based on the following criteria:
- Flammable gas or vapors in excess of 10 percent of its lower flammable limit (LFL);
- Airborne combustible dust at a concentration that meets or exceeds its LFL and obscures vision at a distance of about 5 feet.
- Atmospheric oxygen concentration below 19.5 percent or above 23.5 percent;
Testing is done with a properly calibrated gas monitoring device that measures oxygen concentration and toxic gas levels.
Toxic gasses include ammonia, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, various chlorines / chlorides and more.
See this toxic gas list compiled by the University of Illinois School of Chemical Sciences.
See OSHA general industry standards for permit-required confined spaces.
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