Posted on: 12/2/18

Confined Space Work: Missing A Hazard? (Part 1)

Andy Williams is Training Manager at Reax Ltd, a Specialist Access and Rescue training centre in Blackpool, UK. Offering training, consultancy and rescue planning in confined Spaces, work at height and other rope rescue related discipline, the training team consists primarily of emergency services personnel.

Have you missed a key hazard when planning confined space work? Which one do you think is most frequently overlooked? Listen to many workers, managers and health and safety advisors and you could be forgiven for thinking that explosions and hazardous gases are the only things that could kill them in a confined space. Ask someone who’s read the Confined Space Regulations 1997 and they will rightly tell you, for example, that dangerous increases in body temperature and drowning are also hazards, amongst others.

So what is often missed?

Falling. Falling objects.

The work at height element of confined space work is often forgotten, or, where it is recognised, is inadequately dealt with. While some confined spaces involve horizontal access situations which pose no work at height challenges, many require climbing down a ladder or step irons, or, where none are available, being lowered in suspension, typically hanging from a tripod mounted system. These vertical access situations raise issues which are sometimes very poorly dealt with.

…Steel toe cap boots and a hi-viz don’t help much if you’re falling headlong into a dark hole in the ground!

This article is the first in a series which considers a range of work at height related issues in confined spaces, click here to see part 2 and part 3. For now though let’s think about the general problem.

How many times have you seen someone open up a manhole cover and then stand next to it, hands on knees, leaning over to see what is down there. They might even be gas checking it, which is hugely important, but they’re at risk of falling in! In fact, it’s not unknown to see a health and safety manager or trainer standing next to an open cover or hatch, below which is a 4 or 5 metre drop, lecturing employees on the hazards of passing traffic, weather conditions and the need for the correct PPE. Not a barrier or harness in sight. The group then might be invited to have a look in the confined space, craning their necks to look down into the darkness. What is the greatest hazard in that situation?! Steel toe cap boots and a hi-viz don’t help much if you’re falling headlong into a dark hole in the ground!

The issues surrounding this are both practical and legal. Future article we’ll discuss some practical ways of protecting people from falling into black pits of doom. In passing though let’s note that the Work at Height Regulations 2005 do apply in many confined space scenarios as work at height means “work in any place, including a place at or below ground level” (Reg 2 (1)) and that in the first place a fall should be prevented. If it is not possible to prevent a fall, the distance and consequences of any fall must be minimised. There’s not time within this short article to consider fully the legal requirements surrounding work at height in confined spaces. Suffice it to say though, if attention is not given to this, you or your colleagues may end up standing in front of someone with a curly wig, deeply regretting the choices you’ve made.

That all being said, what practical control measures are most often omitted? We’d like to hear your comments. There a number of articles lined up which will be released soon covering issues such as access in suspension, barriers/harnesses and dropped objects.

This article is purely for reference and not a replacement for proper training. Please contact us for details of courses.