According to the final data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in its Census of Fatal Occupational Injury data for fiscal 2015, of the 4,836 fatal workplace injuries that year, 136 were associated with confined spaces. While it represents less than three percent of the total, that number is significant because in most cases, such fatalities could be prevented.

According to OSHA, a confined space is an area that is large enough and configured such that an employee or person can bodily enter and perform some type of work; has limited or restricted means for entry or exit; and is not designed for continuous occupancy. Some examples of confined spaces include storage tanks, sewers, manholes, tunnels, ship voids, pipelines, silos, wells, pits and trenches. These also require a permit for entry. In the United States, any pit or trench with a depth equal to or greater than four feet is classified as a permit-required confined space.

Confined spaces, as the term suggests, might also act to harbor hazardous gases. For this reason, regulation number CFR 1910.146(c) subsection (d) states that "There may be no hazardous atmosphere within a space whenever an employee is inside the space." This is where atmospheric sampling is an invaluable tool.

According to OSHA, a hazardous atmosphere is an environment that could expose an employee to the risk of death or incapacitation, injury, or acute illness, or could keep the employee from rescuing him- or herself. That includes flammable gas, vapor or mist; airborne combustible dust; atmospheric oxygen above or below specified thresholds, or any other immediately dangerous atmospheric condition.

The practice of atmospheric testing in confined spaces to gauge potential hazards is hardly new – taking along a caged canary into a coal mine is perhaps the best known example from history.

A subcategory of confined spaces requires a permit in order for workers to operate inside them. Such permit-required confined spaces must have one or more specific characteristics: The first is that they contain hazardous gases. Others are that they contain a material that has the potential for engulfing an entrant, have an internal configuration that could lead to entrapment or asphyxiation, or contain any other recognized serious safety or health hazard. Hazardous gases are classified into three categories: toxic, asphyxiating and flammable or explosive. Confined spaces can present any combination of those atmospheric hazards.

Workplace Safety & Health Co. is equipped to review confined spaces in your facility, determine whether each meets the OSHA criteria for confined space, and if so, whether it should be permit-required.

With our experience in assessing thousands of confined spaces in a wide range of industries, Workplace Safety & Health Co. can help your organization reach a “best practice” level of compliance. Give us a call or visit our website today to learn more.