“It’s the same with men as with horses and dogs. Nothing wants to die.”– Tom Waits, The Fall of Troy.

There is no good way to die on the job, but for my money, dying in a confined space has to rank as one of the most horrific. Whether the victim is buried alive or overcome by noxious fumes in a cramped, dark, dank hole, I can’t imagine anyone thinking that dying in a confined space is a good way to go.

According to a five-year study of confined space deaths conducted by the US Bureau of Statistics, there were a total of 481 confined space fatalities over the study period (almost two per week on average) in the United States alone. The report found that over 60% of those killed worked in the construction industry. Astonishingly, the vast majority of these fatalities could have been prevented simply through the correct application of appropriate PPE. Amazingly, atmospheric hazards (including fires) accounted for only a third of the deaths.

A paper released by Fire and Safety Australia notes that two-thirds of confined space deaths globally are individuals attempting to rescue someone injured in a confined space.

What is a confined space?

For something to be considered a confined space (in the US) several elements must be met. First, the workplace is not designed for continuous occupation for people. So while a worker may have to enter the area to perform certain jobs, the area is not designed for an employee to work there as part of the normal operating procedure. An area may also be considered a confined space because it has limited or restricted ways for the worker to enter and exit the area. Some of the most common confined spaces include: tanks, ovens, silos, storage bins, hoppers, vaults, pits, manholes, trenches, and equipment housings. In other words, no matter what your industry, you have the potential for requiring your employees to work in confined spaces and should be prepared.

The UK has far less deaths and serious injuries related to confined spaces, which it defines similarly but not exactly the same. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) defines confined space as follows.

“Confined Space means any places such as ducts, vessels, culverts, tunnels, boreholes, manholes, excavations, sumps, inspection pits, experimental hutches, tanks, building voids or other similar spaces in which, by virtue of the enclosed nature, there is a reasonably foreseeable risk of:

  • Serious injury from fire or explosion
  • Loss of consciousness arising from increased body temperature
  • Loss of consciousness or asphyxiation arising from gas, fume, vapour or lack of oxygen
  • Drowning arising from increased levels of liquid
  • Asphyxiation from a free flowing solid

Confined spaces are not defined by their physical dimensions, rather by the hazards that may arise within the space. Well established examples of confined spaces include sewers, chemical storage/reaction tanks, silos, fuel tanks, and pressure vessels.”

In the United States, OSHA differentiates between simple confined space and permit-required confined space, or permit space. Permit spaces are areas that have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphereContains 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 that could trap or asphyxiate an entrant; or contains any other recognised safety or health hazard, such as unguarded machinery, exposed live wires or heat stress
  • Contains 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 that could trap or asphyxiate an entrant; or contains any other recognised safety or health hazard, such as unguarded machinery, exposed live wires or heat stress

Tools for protecting workers

By far the best protection a company can provide its workers with is training. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, two leading factors in most workplace injuries were a lack of employee training and a lack of supervisor training. This necessary training should include how to recognise a confined space and how to construct a rescue plan.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) plays a pivotal role in keeping workers safe in a confined space, even more so when one recalls that while conventional wisdom dictates that the greatest threat to workers in a confined space is atmospheric, the data shows that more people are killed and seriously injured in confined spaces by other, more traditional hazards. This is not to say that atmospheric monitoring isn’t necessary, but that alone it is insufficient to safely complete the works in most cases.

There are some fairly universal rules of thumb for confined space protection. First, begin by asking yourself: “If a worker is injured in this space, how will we quickly rescue him or her?”

That question has three parts:

  1. How will we know he or she needs help?
  2. How will we locate him or her if he or she is unable to communicate?
  3. How will we get him or her out of the space without risking killing ourselves?

All three of these elements should be thoroughly examined and the answer validated in the confined space rescue plan. In most cases the minimum PPE would be a harness and lanyard, both to make it easier to identify a disabled worker and to pull him or her out without exposing the rescue team to the danger. Additionally, properly used fall protection can prevent injuries where fall hazards are present.

Unfortunately, there is no magic recipe for PPE in confined spaces; one has to take the matter on a case by case basis. Begin by thoroughly inspecting the confined space and its surrounding environment. Employ the hierarchy of controls: start by removing any hazards and looking for safer ways to do the work. Contain any hazards that cannot be removed. Review the rescue plan and inspect all tools and equipment for obvious signs of wear or damage. This may seem like common sense, but had it been done by those involved in the confined space fatalities, many of those killed may have survived injury.

Once you have cleared the area of obvious hazards you must then consider the type of confined space with which you are dealing.

Serious injury from fire or explosion

Obviously if there is a serious risk of fire or explosion, fire resistant clothing should be worn. According to an excellent bulletin published by Work Safe Alberta (PPE005 – Personal Protective Equipment Revised April 2006 – Reformatted September 2010):

“Protection against burns due to flash fires can be provided by lightweight clothing made of materials that look, feel and wear like regular work clothes. Worn as the outermost layer, such protective clothing reduces the severity of burn injuries and increases the likelihood of survival in the event of a flash fire or explosion.

“While advances in fire retardant (FR) clothing do indeed make them look and feel like normal ‘street clothes’ it can be tough to differentiate at a glance whether a garment that looks virtually indistinguishable from normal apparel provides sufficient protection. Also, it is key that the FR clothing be the outermost garment and this includes prohibiting the hoods from non FR clothing from extending from beneath the FR clothing.”

This bulletin reminds us that  “specialised fire resistant or FR clothing is intended to protect workers from exposure to intense heat and flame for short periods of time,” and that an “altogether different type of protective clothing is required for situations where exposure to intense heat is frequent, normal and of extended duration,” so you will have to assess the risk of fire or explosion based on your situation. You need to do this both well in advance of the job and immediately before commencing work.

FR clothing isn’t just made for keeping people from being burned, rather there is some that also provides some protection against injuries from:

  • Chemicals
  • Abrasion
  • Build-up of static electricity
  • Hazardous materials in liquids and soils that may be present in the confined space
  • Loss of consciousness arising from increased body temperature

If the area is considered a confined space because of the risk of heat stress you should understand the risk factors and consider them in your work plan. Temperatures in some confined spaces can rapidly rise and expose workers to heat stress, heat illness and even death. While the most serious of these conditions is heat stroke, other less serious illnesses like heat exhaustion, heat rash, dehydration and heat cramps may also pose a threat to the worker’s well being. When planning a job consider both the temperature outside the confined space and the temperature within the confined space, keeping in mind that the latter rises as workers give off body heat. The more physical the job, the more likely it is to raise the internal temperature quickly.

While there are PPE manufacturers that offer devices and clothing for lowering the chances of heat illnesses, your best defence remains a good offence, that is, recognising the symptoms of heat illnesses and intervening before the illness occurs.

According to the OSHA Quick Card: Preventing workers from heat stress, the risk factors for heat illness include:

  • High temperature and humidity, direct sun exposure, no breeze or windLow liquid intake
  • Low liquid intake
  • Heavy physical labour
  • Waterproof clothing
  • No recent exposure to hot workplaces

The card also provides warning signs that a worker may have a heat stress illness.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion:

  • Headache, dizziness or fainting
  • Weakness and wet skin
  • Irritability or confusion
  • Thirst, nausea or vomiting

Symptoms of heat stroke:

  • May be confused, unable to think clearly or pass out
  • Collapse or have seizures (fits)
  • May stop sweating

OSHA also recommends having a plan for preventing heat illnesses and providing training for workers on the dangers of heat illness. Where applicable, both of these should be part of your work plan.

Loss of consciousness or asphyxiation arising from gas, fume, vapour or lack of oxygen

As mentioned previously, most confined space injuries do not occur from atmospheric causes, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot and does not happen. Respirators, or Self Contained Breathing Devices (SCBDs) are the most obvious PPE requirement, but workers who enter the Confined Space should also be wearing a lanyard. This includes workers who may have to attempt a rescue – the time to put on the gear is before the job begins. Minutes count when attempting a rescue.

Drowning arising from increased levels of liquid

One form of PPE that has been around the longest is also one of the most effective in preventing drowning: the life jacket or vest.

There are many excellent life jackets and vests designed for industrial use, but if the life vest is used with fall protection you must make sure that the fall protection does not interfere with or prevent the life vest from properly inflating and that the life jacket or vest does not interfere with the proper operation of the fall protection.

Asphyxiation from a free flowing solid

Collapsing trenches, work in sewers and similar work all pose a significant risk of worker asphyxiation from a free flowing solid. In addition to PPE on site, you should also have resuscitators on hand. As free flowing solids represent a variety of hazards beyond asphyxiation, a variety of PPE such as approved breathing apparatus, safety helmets, protective clothing, safety harnesses and rescue ropes may be necessary. Once again, you as an employer have to assess the job hazards and determine the appropriate PPE.


While often cited as the least effective way of protecting workers, PPE saves lives. It can only do this, however, if it is worn, worn properly and worn throughout the job. To that end, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the best way to ensure compliance with PPE policy is to train the workers in the risks posed by the job, how PPE protects them from these risks, and in the proper use, care and storage of PPE. Additionally, both workers and job supervisors should be trained in how to inspect PPE and what criteria to use to determine whether or not the equipment should be removed from service. It isn’t always easy to ensure that PPE is fit for use simply through a visual inspection. In some cases, equipment can become compromised, such as fire retardant clothing that has been improperly laundered at home against the manufacturer’s recommendations, and no longer provides protection despite not appearing damaged in any way. In other cases, PPE may seem fine for one last job, but when it comes to PPE the rule is: when in doubt, throw it out. You many not make a lot of friends telling workers that it’s time to retire their cherished workbooks or telling the site leader that he or she will have to purchase new PPE, but since PPE truly is the thin red line between being harmed and injured, it pays to err on the side of caution. This is nowhere more true than when dealing with PPE that is designed for use in protecting workers in confined space and or protecting the people charged with rescuing them.

While appropriate PPE is of paramount importance in protecting workers in confined spaces, in a larger sense workers must be taught that getting the job done is less important than their lives and the lives of their co-workers. Workers should be encouraged to adopt a ‘brother’s keeper’ mentality and to remind others that the proper use of PPE isn’t just about saving the individual’s life, but could make the difference between life or death for the entire crew.

Confined spaces will likely always remain a challenge. Knowing the precise risks of a given confined space is often impossible until the site is visited and inspected, and often by then it is perceived as too late to obtain the proper PPE.

It’s often said that there is always time to work safely. This statement is often openly derided in the field as unrealistic, but consider this: how much more realistic is it that you will be able to live with yourself with the knowledge that a worker died on your watch because you judged PPE as overly protective, non-practicable, too expensive, or you just didn’t have time to acquire it. PPE requirements exist for a reason and the reason is to mitigate the risk of injuries and fatalities on jobs. Getting the right PPE for confined space work is difficult to be sure, but what then is the alternative?

Published: 15th Feb 2016 in Health and Safety International