Confined space accidents are one of the leading causes for occupational fatalities in the United States. These accidents largely occur when victims don’t receive proper training on potential hazards. Companies whose employees work in confined spaces are legally obligated to identify the conditions and provide operational training on safety procedures. The following discussion outlines how to manage these spaces and take additional measures to promote worksite safety.

Types of confined spaces

A workspace is considered “confined” when it’s just large enough to perform a particular task, but still poses some physical obstacle or restriction on the worker. Common examples of confined spaces include manholes, crawl spaces, and tanks. OSHA uses the following three characteristics to define a confined space:

  1. Big enough for a person to fit his or her entire body
  2. Restrictive for the person when he or she is entering and exiting
  3. Space is not meant for someone to occupy for a long period of time

Certain types of confined spaces qualify as “permit spaces” under OSHA regulations. Permit-required confined spaces (PRCS) contain one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. Contains or has potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere
  2. Contains material that has the potential to engulf an entrant
  3. Has walls that converge inward or floors that slope downward and taper into a smaller area which could trap or asphyxiate an entrant
  4. Contains any other recognized safety or health hazard, such as unguarded machinery, exposed live wires, or heat stress

If your workspace meets one of the above traits, you must have the following documentation on-site:

  1. Danger and warning signs to alert workers
  2. Program detailing purpose and use of the PRCS
  3. Permits for safe entry operations, including atmosphere test results
  4. Certified documents explaining alternate entry procedures and safety methods
  5. Professional engineer’s written approval on the capabilities and limitations of any personnel hoisting systems
  6. Safety data sheets for workers exposed to the PRCS
  7. Employee training records confirming they’ve completed OSHA-compliant training

Methods of PRCS communication

Among the requirements listed, proper PRCS training is essential for OSHA compliance and workplace injury prevention. Businesses are required to provide an OSHA-certified safety training course before employees perform any tasks around the confined space. U.S. Department of Labor details all permit and training requirements to meet OSHA regulations.

Visual communication should further promote worker safety. While some aspects of a PRCS will inevitably present risk, best practice is to identify any tactics that could improve working conditions. For example, could an employee’s task be performed more safely with stronger lighting? Could handrails or footholds be more brightly marked? If an employee starts to feel unsteady or panicked in a confined space, his or her safety may depend on visual cues to quickly adjust their grip or footing. Inspect your confined space to see if these features could be improved.

Preparing first response

Before the event of an accident, employers need to have a thorough rescue plan in place. Procedures should be clearly written and accessible for quick response. Emergency responders should be identified in advance based on potential equipment needed for rescue. Depending on the type of PRCS, the emergency may requireatmospheric monitors, extraction equipment, or self-contained breathing apparatus. Document and share these directions and contact information before any employees begin working in a confined space.

Visit OSHA’s site for compliance materials on confined space management. For more tips on worker safety, check out our recent blog on increasing worksite safety through mobile data collection.