Hazardous Materials Dangers in Confined Spaces

One of the most dangerous locations for fire, EMS and law enforcement emergency responders is the confined space. Hazards in confined spaces include mechanical/electrical, communicative, thermal, noise, structural barriers, limited space, size of openings...


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One of the most dangerous locations for fire, EMS and law enforcement emergency responders is the confined space. Hazards in confined spaces include mechanical/electrical, communicative, thermal, noise, structural barriers, limited space, size of openings and hazardous atmospheres. Over 300 U.S. workers are killed annually and another 3,000 injured in confined spaces.

Statistics show that over 60% of all confined space fatalities involve would-be rescuers. That includes, but is not limited to, emergency response personnel. Potential rescuers include fellow employees who succumb to a “knee-jerk” reaction to go into a confined space to help someone in trouble. It is important that responders, especially EMS personnel who may be called first to a person down, don’t react to a person in trouble in a confined space without taking the proper precautions for self-protection or they too may become victims.

The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) defines a confines space as “a space that is large enough and so configured that an employee can bodily enter and perform assigned work; and has limited or restricted means for entry or exit (for example, tanks, vessels, silos, storage bins, hoppers, vaults, and pits are spaces that may have limited means of entry); and is not designed for continuous employee occupancy.” Confined spaces can be found in many locations in almost any community from shipyards to farms. In addition to industry, public utilities such as sewer and utility manholes are included.

Hidden Hazards

Confined spaces contain hidden hazards that can lead to deaths and injuries of workers and emergency responders within a very short time following entry if proper entry procedures are not followed. Two key factors often result in fatal injuries in confined spaces:

2. Inadequate or incorrect actions by emergency responders.

Response personnel are trained to respond quickly and take action when someone is trapped or injured. Since most of the dangers associated with confined spaces are not evident without monitoring instruments, personnel react to the circumstances and attempt to render aid without thinking of the consequences. A confined space response is like a combination technical rescue and hazardous materials incident: someone has entered a confined space and has been overcome by toxic fumes or a lack of oxygen.

Because openings are often small with unusual configurations of the space itself, specialized equipment and training are required to mount a successful technical rescue. Because the space may also contain a hazardous atmosphere as a result of some type of hazardous material being present or from a lack of oxygen to sustain life, special consideration for respiratory protection is required.

Factors in Fatalities

According to OSHA, 65% of all confined space fatalities occur because of hazardous atmospheres. OSHA defines a hazardous atmosphere as one that “may expose employees to the risk of death, incapacitation, impairment of ability to self-rescue (that is, escape unaided from a confined space), injury or acute illness” from one or more of the following causes:

  • Flammable gas, vapor or mist in excess of 10% of its lower flammable (explosive) limit (LEL).

  • Airborne combustible dust at a concentration that meets or exceeds its LFL. Note: This concentration may be approximated as a condition in which the dust obscures vision at a distance of five feet or less.

  • Atmospheric oxygen concentration below 19.5% percent or above 23.5%.

  • Atmospheric concentration of any substance for which a dose or a permissible exposure limit is published in Subpart G, Occupational Health and Environmental Control, or in Subpart Z, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, and which could result in employee exposure in excess of its dose or permissible exposure limit. Note: An atmospheric concentration of any substance that is not capable of causing death, incapacitation, impairment of ability to self-rescue, injury or acute illness due to its health effects is not covered by this provision.

  • Any other atmospheric condition that is immediately dangerous to life or health. Note: Immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) means any condition that poses an immediate or delayed threat to life or that would cause irreversible adverse health effects or that would interfere with an individual’s ability to escape unaided from a permit space.
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