Good Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) procedures are a vital component of any workplace. If carried out incorrectly, this practice can be fraught with danger and possible hazards. Many workers are injured and killed each year while working in confined spaces with incredibly, an estimated 60 per cent of these fatalities occurring among the would-be rescuers!
A confined space can be more hazardous than regular work spaces for many reasons. These include: poor air quality; chemical or biological exposure; fire hazards; explosive/flammable atmosphere; noise; structural or mechanical hazards, electric shock, and poor visibility. And because WA is one of the world’s largest producers of iron ore, nickel, gold, alumina and other minerals - there are many mining and other personnel regularly working in confined spaces.
In addition, there are many occasions when ordinary workers out in the field, or even at their places of work, are exposed to the hazards of working in confined spaces. Fortunately, the WA Department of Commerce provides some handy tips and guidelines to help keep those working in confined spaces and mine sites safe.
According to the Department, the first step to take when dealing with working in a confined space is for a competent person to carry out a risk assessment. This risk assessment must be in writing, and take into account the hazards involved, work methods, risk factors and control measures. The assessment should also ensure emergency response procedures are available should something go wrong, for example; rescue, first aid and resuscitation. And, whether they are required or not, well maintained items such as harnesses, respirators and stretchers should be on hand while the work is being carried out.
A well-trained emergency response team familiar with the equipment and first aid should be on ‘stand by’. Where the conditions in a confined space are extremely hazardous, there are further precautions that need to be taken before personnel are allowed to enter the affected area. For example, if there is any suspicion of toxic gases or a flammable atmosphere within a confined space, the air should first be tested from the outside before any entry is allowed. Care should also be taken to ensure the air is tested throughout the confined space: from side-to-side and top to bottom.
The testing equipment should be properly calibrated and maintained, with the sampling showing that:
• The oxygen content is within safe limits
• A hazardous atmosphere (toxic gases or flammable atmosphere) is not present
• Ventilation equipment is working properly
It is also important for the air testing to be ongoing - depending on the nature of the potential hazards and the type of work.
This is because the conditions may change while workers are inside the confined space, and a hazardous atmosphere can also sometimes be created by work activities in the confined space.
Inside VS Outside
Another key question to ask before entering a confined space is:
‘Does the work have to be carried out inside the confined space?’ As surprising as it may seem, there have been deaths in confined spaces when the work could actually have been done outside. Of course, the traditional hazard control methods already found in regular work sites can also be very effective in confined spaces. Safety procedures such as Engineering Controls, Administrative Controls and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) can be used effectively in a confined space. Other safety precautions to consider when working in a confined space include:
• Ensuring any liquids or free-flowing solids are removed from the confined space to eliminate the risk of drowning or suffocation
• All pipes should be physically disconnected, or isolation blanks bolted in place. Closing valves is not sufficient
• A barrier should be present to prevent any liquids or free-flowing solids from entering the confined space.
• The opening for entry and exit from the confined space should always be large enough to allow the passage of a person using protective equipment
WorkSafe is the Government agency responsible for the administration of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act in Western Australia, and also a division of the Department of Commerce. It's aim is to reduce workplace fatalities and injury and disease rates in accordance with national targets, by:
• Reducing high incidence/severity risks
• Improving the capacity of business operators and workers to manage OSH effectively
• Preventing occupational disease more effectively
• Eliminating hazards at the design stage
• Strengthening the capacity of government to influence occupational safety and health outcomes
For further enquiries, contact WorkSafe on their website at www.commerce.wa.gov.au/worksafe/
Or please contact RecruitWest for any employment-related OSH enquiries.