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Managing confined spaces

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Over 100 years ago accidents in mines were common; the Mines Rescue Service was thus formed. They became expert at working in confined spaces, providing training in entry and rescue.


Over 100 years ago accidents in mines were common and by act of parliament the Mines Rescue Service was formed. They became expert at working in confined spaces, training those going into them and, crucially, rescuing people from them.

Mines are, by definition, confined spaces, but any space of an enclosed nature where there is a risk of death or serious injury from hazardous substances or dangerous conditions clasifies as a confined space. Industries such as marine, oil and gas, sewage, tunnelling and nuclear power do regular work in confined spaces. The need to assess the risk associated with this type of work and prepare for rescue in case of accidents is of great relevance today.

The root causes of most problems in confined spaces lie in one of four directly related areas – design, equipment, culture and training.

Human activity within the space should always be the prime consideration and it must be seen as the starting point in the design cycle. Safety procedures, training and specialist equipment can be put in place, but the design of the spaces will determine the effectiveness of those measures. In any design of a space where human entry is required the following should be the criteria: adequate room at the entry point for equipment (entry or rescue); ease of access into and out of the space; ease of movement within the space and the ability to undertake rescue operations.

Equipment, training, culture

Consideration of confined space equipment should always include personal protection equipment (PPE), entry equipment and rescue equipment.

Training is one of the most important preparatory aspects for working in confined spaces. No person should enter any space until they are adequately trained and fully aware of all procedures associated with it. In confined spaces, competence is absolutely paramount.

Competence is based on knowledge of what procedures should be in place before entry, the equipment to be taken into the space for personal safety, how individuals should conduct themselves while in the space and, most importantly, what to do in the event of something going wrong.

In the context of safety, an appreciation of the requirement to manage the confined spaces becomes part of the organisational culture.

Managing your spaces

To be able to effectively manage these spaces we suggest that an audit of what and where these spaces, including any likely problems that may be caused by their entry point and internal design features. In our experience, very few companies can readily identify or had compiled a sufficiently detailed audit of those spaces that could be a potential hazard to those entering.

Over the last three years we have designed such a system, Safe Control of Confined Space (SaCCS), that provides us with a computerised database management system to identify, record and store all information on these spaces by drawing together risk assessments and other safety-related documentation.

The SaCCS system has the ability to define and categorise each space and is intended to be a ‘living document’.It records and upload photographs, (video), and company safety procedures relevant to the assessment and clearly indicates their presence on the system. It also llows the user to input condition reports, provides instant up to date information to both the site and any remote controlling offices.

It also has the ability to be implemented at any site, regardless of their disparity in size or type, it allows third parties, such as contractors, to view information prior to entry thereby pre-planning the work, compiles a definitive list of all confined spaces at the site and it provides an output report of the current status of the space.

The Confined Spaces Regulations 1997 and its Approved Code of Practice published by HSE highlight the steps that companies must take to ensure the safety of those working in confined spaces. Every year a number of people are killed or seriously injured in confined spaces in the UK. Those killed include people working in the confined space and those who try to rescue them without proper training and equipment.

Working in confined spaces is by definition risky work and organisations with staff working under such conditions should carefully look at the confined space work and prepare for the safety of those workers.

Read HSE guide to working safely in confined spaces here.

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