Some confined spaces can contain materials that, while seemingly harmless, can pose hazards once they become airborne. Once they are atomized into the air in the form of dust, the dangers from these materials include limited vision, respiratory irritation and distress, oxygen displacement and explosive potential.
There is a significant potential that local fire departments and EMS providers will be summoned early to a confined-space incident. Many industrial settings list the local emergency services as the responding rescue team, often without the fire department’s knowledge. When this occurs, setting the stage early for a safe operation is critical.
While the rescue team is responding, there are a few steps to be taken initially upon arrival of the first-due units:
• Gather information. The first-arriving officer establishes command and begins the process of finding out what happened, who is involved and what is the nature of the incident. For example, the downed worker could have suffered a medical emergency or a traumatic injury or was overcome by a chemical introduction into the space. Depending on these answers, rescue teams can set the stage for specific operations to remove the victims safely and efficiently.
• Monitor the atmosphere. Begin to determine the safe work area around the space by monitoring the atmosphere around the entry point. Initial responders shall be on breathing air while monitoring until the area around the space can be confirmed to be safe.
• Ventilate. After determining a safe atmosphere around the space, begin ventilation within the space. Most times, it would be more beneficial to provide positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) within the space, as an increase in pressure will help purge the space and replace the atmosphere inside with fresh air. A word of caution here: be sure that atmospheric monitoring has confirmed no toxins exist within the space, as whatever is displaced outside will vent directly into the area where rescue teams will need to work. If this is the case, the space will need to be vented in a direction away from the rescuers. Additionally, along with providing adequate ventilation, the fan must be intrinsically safe; it must be able to operate in an explosive atmosphere without generating an ignition source. Fire department vent fans usually will not fit this need; specific fans for confined-space operations are needed.
• Lockout/tagout. Many spaces have moving blades and mixing parts within the space. Isolating energy sources and securing them must be done before anyone enters the space. Some processes take multiple steps in specific order for processes to be shut down. Find a qualified person on-site who is familiar with the isolation process to confirm that the energy sources for the space are shut down.
These steps to secure the scene and set up the rescue area will let the rescue team begin setting up for entry immediately on arrival. Information gathered during these operations should be given to the rescue team officer for consideration in making the entry. This information will aid in determining the best course of action related to removing the victim from the space.
In jurisdictions large and small, the dangers of confined spaces are countless and can cause injury and death at any time. Rescuers who accept this challenge must be well versed in hazardous materials, technical rope rescue, medical treatment and patient packaging and lockout/tagout, to name only a few concerns. This responsibility requires continuing educational commitments, administrative support from the top brass and interactive support from cooperating agencies.
Initial responders who are unfamiliar with these hazards may find themselves at significant risk; these responders should not operate beyond the scope of their capabilities, as it is possible the rescuer can easily become the victim at these incidents. n