Confined Space Rescue Operations

Fred Endrikat discusses the importance of being informed, properly trained and equipped when conducting a confined space rescue.


It is around the year 110 A.D.; the Roman Emperor Trajan sentences three criminals to clean sewers, an occupation considered to be one of the worst. How Many Of These Confined Spaces Are In YOUR Jurisdiction? Auto repair lift pits Below-grade basements...


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Confined spaces can be hazardous in varied ways. Often, a confined space will not appear hazardous; it may have been entered on prior occasions without incident and may give no apparent sign of danger. At other times, there may be indications of danger: a distinct odor of irritating or toxic atmospheres, continued mild shocks, arcing electrical equipment, or flowing grain or sand. By their nature, confined spaces concentrate hazards: atmospheric (some gases will displace breathable air or a confined space will allow the accumulation of toxic hazards or flammable or explosive atmospheres); and phy-sical (limited ability to avoid contact with electricity, moving mech-anical components or machinery, or unstable substances).

Recognizing the capacity of these spaces to harbor hazardous agents is a significant element in any workplace hazard assessment. When confined spaces are recognized to be hazardous, provisions for minimizing the need for entry and for use of appropriate work practices and equipment can be made. (Worker Deaths in Confined Spaces, page 10. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Public Health Service; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; NIOSH; 4676 Columbia Parkway, Cincinnati, OH 45226-1998.)

Confined Space Programs

Under the General Requirements section of the OSHA Final Rule, employers are directed to establish a permit-required confined space program which would be defined as the employer’s overall program for controlling and, where appropriate, for protecting employees from permit space hazards and for regulating entry into permit spaces.

This standard directs employers who determine that employees will enter permit spaces for any reason to finalize responsibilities for workplace evaluation, hazard determination, employee information access and the development of a written permit space entry program.

OSHA has documented that “many of the employees who died in permit space incidents were would-be rescuers who were not properly trained or equipped,” and notes that untrained or poorly trained rescuers comprise a significant “group at risk.”

The OSHA Regulation requires the employer to provide the equipment necessary for safe entry into and rescue from permit spaces at no cost to employees, to maintain that equipment properly and to ensure its proper use by employees.

All employees who work in and around confined spaces (particularly rescuers) should have the understanding, knowledge and skills necessary for the safe performance of their duties. Rescuers should become proficient in the duties required for responding to these types of emergencies and use appropriate procedures.

OSHA identifies four specific categories of personnel involved in confined space operations:

  • Confined space supervisor. The person (such as the employer, foreman or crew chief) responsible for determining if acceptable entry conditions are present at a permit space where entry is planned, for authorizing entry and overseeing entry operations, and for terminating entry as required by this section.
  • Confined space attendant. A person stationed outside one or more permit spaces who monitors the authorized entrants and performs all attendant’s duties assigned in the employee’s permit space program.
  • Confined space entrant. An employee who is authorized by the employer to enter a permit space.
  • Confined space rescuer. Personnel designated to rescue employees from permit spaces. (Rescuers must be qualified entrants.)

It is easy to transpose OSHA’s definitions for each of the four personnel categories into our own positions within the fire service. A confined space supervisor could be the incident commander, whether that person is the first-arriving company officer or a subsequently arriving chief officer. In industry, the role of the confined space attendant is commonly referred to as the “hole-watch”; in fire service terms, this position would be the company officer or firefighter assigned the duties of monitoring the authorized rescuers and performing all specified attendant’s duties. The third and fourth personnel categories (confined space entrant and/or confined space rescuer) would be the firefighter(s) assigned the task of actively making entry into the confined space and performing the rescue.

OSHA Training Requirements

A major portion of the overall program mandated by this law involves training requirements. The OSHA standard requires training in four specific personnel categories: