In contrast to many workplace hazards such as heights and large construction machinery, the dangers of confined spaces are less obvious. They're easily underestimated by employers who may fail to provide adequate safety training. When confined space safety procedures and instruction conflict with productivity, some employers may prioritize productivity over safety with tragic consequences.
According to OSHA, a confined space meets these three conditions:
- Has sufficient size and is configured so that an employee can enter and work inside.
- Has limited or restricted means for entry or exit.
- Isn't designed for continuous employee occupancy.
Examples of confined spaces include tanks, vessels, sand storage containers, hoppers, vaults, excavated pits, and enclosed spaces around wellheads.
How Confined Spaces Cause Workplace Injuries
Depending on the circumstances, confined spaces can have many hazards, which can cause serious injuries or fatalities if they aren't recognized and properly dealt with. The hazards are exacerbated when proper emergency response procedures aren't in place or implemented.
One such hazard is insufficient oxygen. A possible scenario is a worker who is lowered into a deep and narrow shaft who then uses up the limited oxygen and loses consciousness. The workers outside the shaft are unable to see the unconscious worker and by the time they suspect that something is wrong, the worker has died of asphyxiation.
In this scenario, the worker died because the hazard was never identified. If it had, the worker would have brought his own oxygen supply, and a means of communication would have been set up with the workers outside the shaft.
Similar incidents have happened in which a worker enters an enclosed space filled with a toxic gas and succumbs. Afterward, another worker attempts a rescue without understanding the nature of the hazard and also succumbs to the toxic gas. In this case, two deaths occurred because the hazard wasn't identified and an appropriate emergency response procedure didn't exist.
Other confined space hazards include:
- Flammable vapors and gas. Some vapors and gas are heavier than air and will sink into low-lying confined spaces.
- Engulfment. Miscommunication may cause an empty storage container with a worker inside to be filled with tons of sand, cement, water, or other material/fluid. A worker inside a partially filled storage container can be engulfed if the material avalanches on top of him.
- High temperature. Working in a very warm environment with little ventilation can cause heat stroke.
- Mechanical hazards. A person doing maintenance deep inside industrial machinery can get crushed if it's accidentally started.
Other conditions that worsen the danger are noise that interferes with communication, and wet surfaces that create slip and fall hazards.
If you suffered a workplace injury because of unidentified confined space hazards or inadequate safety procedures, get legal advice from the lawyers at Odegaard Braukmann Law. Contact us today for a free case evaluation.