Confined Spaces

Insights_DangerSign.gifThe electrical trade presents many hazards to the electrical contractor who must at times work on energized equipment, on roofs, or on busy job sites. Being lowered down into vault or walking into some other confined space where work must be performed adds yet another dynamic to the job and other existing hazards that requires special skills. Confined spaces are challenging on many fronts. Let's walk through some things you may want to consider and review available tools that can help in the preparation for work in confined spaces. Identifying and labeling confined spaces, instituting and maintaining onsite emergency response plans, and providing training for workers and supervisors can save lives. Let's explore more on this topic together.

Identifying Confined Spaces

A confined space does not have to only be those locations where you are lowered into a pit or other similar underground vault type of situation; there are many other less obvious examples that meet the OSHA definition of confined spaces. OSHA defines a confined space as a space that:

  • Is large enough and so configured that an employee can bodily enter and perform assigned work
  • Has limited or restricted means for entry or exit
  • Is not designed for continuous employee occupancy.

Many examples exist to help define confined spaces. The work being performed doesn’t just have to be electrical work, confined spaces present themselves to all types of trades. Some obvious examples include tanks, vessels, silos, storage bins, hoppers, vaults and pits. Take a second look at the definition above. There are many other less obvious examples and situations on the job that may meet this definition.

For example, in addition to the above definition, OSHA uses the term "permit-required confined space" (permit space) to describe a confined space that has one or more of the following characteristics:

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

The list above provides more criteria that may help expand our understanding of confined spaces. It’s more than just those physically tight spaces we immediately see in our minds eye when we hear the word. A hazardous atmosphere, and the possible engulf of the entrant, seems to move this definition to other less physically constrained locations. Because work in confined spaces may be required / encountered in any type of trade, the first step to preventing fatalities or injuries is to understand these details, evaluate your work area and be able to identify confined space work.

Identifying the Hazards

Being able to identify a confined space is the first task but we must be able to identify the hazards as well to ensure work, if performed at all, is performed safely. Hazards in confined spaces could resemble the hazards we have in regular workspaces except for the fact that they can be even more hazardous in a confined space. The following are just some of the hazards you may consider for your identified confined space. Use this list with your team to spark the thought process that may lead to identifying other hazards as well.

  • Hazardous Atmosphere: when reviewing the confined space, we must consider the very basic concept of air quality. The hazard may present itself due to a lack of natural air movement, presence of dust and other similar particles, heavier gases that displace oxygen, or other similar situations. The space may be oxygen-deficient, flammable and/or toxic. Atmospheric conditions may exist before you enter or can be caused by the work being performed. All possibilities must be considered.
  • Oxygen-De