Just like in our everyday lives, it can be hard to figure out the facts when it comes to safety in the workplace. This could be honest, simple misunderstandings, or scenarios where people think they are doing the right thing, simply because they do not know any better. Remember, something is only “obvious”, if people already know about it.

Separating fact from fiction

In today’s world of viral videos, alternative news sources and “the internet of things”, it can be very difficult, if not impossible in some cases, to separate the facts from fiction. That video of a famous celebrity you saw which everyone claims to be real, could very easily have been created by someone in a bedroom using “deepfake” technology. Emails from large organisations such as Amazon, Google, your local Tax office and others, asking you to log-in, renew memberships, “take immediate action” and so on, can be very clever efforts by scammers and hackers to access your bank accounts and other personal information.

“we can separate some of the facts of working in confined spaces from the common misconceptions”

Having written on the topic of confined space safety previously, rather than just discussing hazards and control measures I would like to take a slightly different approach. So in today’s article, let us see if we can separate some of the facts of working in and around confined spaces, from several of the common misconceptions and fictions surrounding working in and around them.

Myth one

“Confined spaces are always very small, totally enclosed spaces.”

This is one I’ve heard from people many, many times. Indeed, it is something I also used to think, but is a myth, as confined space definitions can vary from country to country.
In order for something to be a confined space it generally has to meet two criteria:

1. It is a space that is difficult to access (get into) and egress (exit from)

2. The space did (or does) contain something hazardous

While the space can be enclosed, it is not necessarily a tiny space. You can also think of it as “a space not designed for human occupation/habitation, particularly in the long term”. So based upon the above, there are many potential confined spaces in our workplaces: tanks, chambers, piping, silos, excavations, wells, and pits, just to name a few.

In terms of the second criteria, most people would think of the space as having contained hazardous chemicals; however, there are many other hazards that the space could contain. The atmosphere could contain too little oxygen, otherwise called ‘oxygen deficient’, running the risk of workers succumbing to asphyxiation. On the other end of the scale, the space could be ‘oxygen enriched’, meaning the space contains more than the normal 21% of oxygen found in the air around us. Not only does this run the risk of workers dying from Hyperoxia (oxygen toxicity), but it also increases the risk of fires and explosions.

Myth-busting Confined Spaces

Drowning is also a risk in confined spaces. A sudden rainstorm could cause flash flooding in a trench, excavation or pit. Tanks and pipes suddenly being flooded could kill workers, as they may be unable to escape. Drowning and/or asphyxiation could also occur from free-flowing solids such as grain or soil. Excavation material collapsing on someone’s chest may not kill them instantly, but 100+ kilograms of material will impede their ability to breathe. Similarly, a person working with pellets or fine particles in a space could suddenly sink into the material and become stuck. If they continue to sink, they slip below the surface and choke to death. Even if they do not sink, accidental addition of more material to the vessel they are in would simply bury the worker. Other potential dangers include the high temperatures sometimes found in confined spaces, and a lack of natural air flow.

Myth two

“The space is empty, so there are no problems.”

Just because something appears to be empty, does not mean that it is. The space may contain residues of hazardous materials and often these materials can be totally invisible to us as humans, as our senses cannot detect them. For example, the space could contain a gas that is colourless, tasteless, and not detectable by a human sense of smell. However, even if something is visible, such as small droplets of liquid or stains, workers can often be lured into a false sense of security, thinking that the amount of material present is not large enough to be a problem. Yet, even the smallest spark can cause the most devastating of fires and explosions.

Myth three

“As long as we do not enter the space, we will not have a problem. It is totally safe outside of it.”

Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. Many incidents have occurred where people have been seriously injured or killed, yet they were not in the confined space, and on some occasions, had absolutely no intention of entering it. Three examples of where this had tragic consequences are:

November 5th, 2005 – Valero, Texas, USA

Two workers died after inhaling nitrogen, an invisible, tasteless and colourless gas that is an asphyxiant. One worker had leaned over the space, inhaled nitrogen vapours, only to lose consciousness and fall into the chamber that the vapours were coming from. His colleague had rushed down a ladder to rescue him, only to succumb himself. Full details can be found here: https://www.csb.gov/csb-issues-case-study-in-2005-valero-refinery-delaware-city-de-accident-report-notes-inadequate-nitrogen-asphyxiation-hazard-awareness-training-and-improper-confined-space-rescue-actions/. A YouTube video is also available on the USCSB (United States Chemical Safety Board of America) page.

November 9th, 2010 – Buffalo, New York, USA

Two workers were killed when welding on top of a tank containing a flammable atmosphere. Sparks dropped into the tank, igniting flammable vapours and causing a massive explosion. Full details can be found here: https://www.csb.gov/e-i-dupont-de-nemours-co-fatal-hotwork-explosion/ A video titled “Hot Work: Hidden Hazards” can also be found on the USCSB
YouTube page.

December 3rd, 2020 – Avonmouth, Bristol, UK

A tank at a Water Treatment plant containing biosolids exploded, killing four people (including a 16 year-old apprentice), and injures one other person. Full article here: https://www.hazardexonthenet.net/article/182420/ Early reports suggested that the workers had been working on top of the tank, but this was not proven. It is important to note that this incident was still under investigation at the time of writing this article.

Myth four

“The only way we can do this job is to go into the space”

As always, using the Hierarchy of Control – Elimination, Substitution, Engineering, Administration and PPE – the best way to deal with hazards is to eliminate them. If you get rid of the hazard, you get rid of the associated risks. A common misconception with confined space work is that there is only one way to do a job. With developments in innovative technology and ideas, however, there are plenty of newer, safer ways we can work with confined spaces without necessarily having to enter them and put lives at unnecessary risk. When examining a space for example, why send humans in there at all when we could use a camera, X-rays, radar equipment and other scanning techniques? This would also be useful for performing NDT (Non-Destructive Testing), when we are looking for microscopic cracks and other problems invisible to the naked eye. If we want to clean a confined space, we could simply flush the space with water or cleaning chemicals, or purge it with inert or “Noble” gasses. Being inert, these gasses will dramatically reduce the chances of fire and explosions, if not eliminate them altogether, by pushing out and replacing the more flammable, volatile material we are trying to remove. For piping work, a common technique that is used is called “Pigging”. In simple terms, this is where a robot is sent down the pipe, cleaning it as it goes. More complex “Pigs” can also inspect and measure the space at the same time.

Myth five

“We have tested for gas and other hazardous materials around the space, and have found nothing, so it is fine”

“We have tested inside the space and found nothing, so it must be safe”

As a professional, I do not like to speculate. It is a known fact, however, that the above myth contributed toward the 2010 explosion in Buffalo, as mentioned earlier in this article. The workers tested around the tank they were working on, including the top of the tank where the welding was to be performed. As they found nothing, this led to complacency and a false sense of security. The team assumed that even if there had been any flammable gas inside the tank, it would not be an issue as it could not escape. What they did not realise was that the gas did not have to reach the welding work, as the sparks could fall onto the tank and heat its surface, therefore heating the flammable material inside. A small gap at the top of the tank also provided a pathway for sparks to enter, potentially igniting the flammable material within. The USCSB’s investigation determined that at least one, if not both, of these scenarios occurred on the day of the incident.

With regards to testing in the space, just because we find nothing does not make it safe. Hazardous substances could enter the space after the testing has been performed, or the person performing the testing may do it incorrectly. For example, a measurement is taken from one part of the confined space and nothing is found. The problem here is that the hazard may be in a different part of the space. A common example of this is Stratification. Some gasses are heavier than air, whilst some are lighter, meaning that a confined space may have different gasses at different levels within the space. Hydrogen Sulphide (H2S) is heavier than air, for example. So if we wanted to test the top of a space looking for H2S, we would not find it, as it would be sat the bottom of the space, undetected.

Other issues with testing for hazardous substances can be that only one test is performed, yet the work being undertaken, or the hazard or substance involved, dictates that multiple or continuous testing and monitoring should be conducted. Workers could also test for the wrong substance or use the wrong equipment to perform the testing. Even the correct equipment can give us the wrong information if it is not calibrated correctly or malfunctions. I have written about gas testing in the past, so if you want more information on this, here is a link to one of my previous articles on this topic: https://www.hsimagazine.com/article/sniffing-for-safety/

Myth-busting Confined Spaces

Build knowledge, reduce risk

The best way to eliminate any myths and misconceptions is education. Legislation, technology, guidance, ideas and ways of thinking are always evolving and changing, exactly as biological life is always adapting. Some people like to use the phrase “if it is not broken, do not fix it”, while others like to say, “adapt or die”. My advice to people is to always try to take a mixed approach. If something new or interesting is suggested, trial it first. The last thing you want to do is make a change to procedures and ways of working, only to make things needlessly harder for people. However, as we have discussed earlier in the article, change can also dramatically improve things in the workplace, perhaps even bringing surprising benefits such as: becoming a leading company in our industry, avoiding prosecution, fines and other legal issues, greater staff retention and better workplace morale, amongst others. Exactly which approach suits you and your workforce depends on the exact circumstances you are faced with. Firstly, consider what confined spaces you have? What hazards do they present? What tasks do you need to perform in and around them? Also, consider what your own corporate requirements and rules are, not just the legal requirements. Remember, the law is the bare minimum we must do, there is nothing wrong with doing extra. As always, look at the competence of your workforce and consider bringing in specialists and consultants when the need arises. Separate “fact from fiction” to help keep everyone safe when working in and around confined spaces. <