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5 myths about confined space

By Stefan Dubowski
| www.cos-mag.com

Health and safety professionals know all too well that confined spaces are dangerous workplaces. It’s no secret that many work-related injuries and fatalities occur in confined spaces, sometimes because an employee didn’t follow safe work procedures, and sometimes because an organization didn’t have the proper procedures in place.

But maybe that’s no surprise, given the myths and misconceptions many people have about confined workplaces. In interviews with health and safety experts we learned that the very definition of “confined space” and the impact of regulations and standards on workplace safety are up for debate.

So what’s the truth of the matter, and what should occupational safety pros really be doing to ensure confined spaces are as safe as possible? We’ve boiled down some of the top-tier confined-space myths — and we’ve matched those tales with a few dollops of reality.

Myth 1: Call a confined space something other than “confined,” and you’ll avoid plenty of hassle.

Organizations may try to avoid some of the difficulties of managing confined spaces by categorizing these areas as something else. Tim Morrison, president of Safetyscope Inc., says he’s seen organizations devise alternative terms, all in an effort to avoid the dreaded “C” word.

“We want to call it a restricted space. We want to call it a non-permit-required space.... I think there’s a general fear with this.”

That fear stems from the fact that confined space management can be complicated.

“We’re trying to make it simple, and it’s not,” Morrison says, explaining that the issue involves numerous moving parts: hazard assessments, plan development, testing protocols, et cetera.

So yes, confined space management can be complex — and expensive, depending on the nature of the hazards involved. But labelling the area as something other than a confined space does the organization a disservice, experts say. It detracts from the seriousness of the situation, giving managers and supervisors an excuse to implement less-than-comprehensive confined space protocols.

It’s better to buck up and invest in holistic confined space management procedures, including hazard assessment, mitigation techniques, and steps for the people working in the confined space to follow.

“In some cases, the cost and the processes you have to go through are not simple,” notes Gabriel Mansour, provincial coordinator, specialized professional services with the Ontario government’s Ministry of Labour. “But you’re dealing with life and death issues here.”

On the other side of the coin, some organizations make matters more complicated than they need to be, says Peter Gilmour, regional prevention manager with WorkSafeBC in Kamloops, B.C.

“Many people mistakenly believe that once a workspace meets the definition of a confined space, a whole lot of precautions are suddenly required simply because it is a confined space.”

But that’s not necessarily the case. Gilmour points out that the new standard CSA Z1006 — the first Canada-wide standard on managing work in confined spaces, awaiting approval before the Standards Council of Canada — goes some way towards helping organizations avoid unnecessary confined space management planning.

Gilmour says Z1006 makes it clear “that every precaution relates to an identified hazard, removing the perception that some precautions are required simply because the workspace meets the definition of a confined space.”

Myth 2: Once you’re aligned with Z1006, you’re good to go.

The standard provides a template that organizations can use to ensure that they’re meeting certain best practices in confined space management. But Z1006 is not the end-all or be-all. Regulations specific to each province trump the standard.

“You need to look at the regulation first,” advises Mansour from the Ontario government. Once an organization understands the provincial or territorial jurisdiction’s requirements, the business can then move ahead and apply the Z1006 standard, keeping in mind applicable government regulations.

Myth 3: Confined space management is a red-tape nightmare.

This myth applies particularly to organizations operating in more than one province or territory. While it’s true that each jurisdiction has its own unique confined space regulations, that don’t necessarily spell a management mess. As the experts say, it’s important to review each jurisdiction’s specific regulations. But chances are, if an organization is in line with one provincial or territorial interpretation, the company won’t have to do much to its confined space management processes to align with regulations elsewhere.

Mansour says that’s largely the result of the work of safety regulators across the country; they meet regularly and compare notes to ensure best practices are shared.

Yet, it seems unlikely that regulators would ever agree on a single confined space regulation for the entire country. According to Mansour, each area’s regulations are unique for a reason.

“We cannot write the regulation in isolation without consulting with the people of Ontario,” he says. “The minute you put it to the stakeholders, in many instances long-established practices within a province need to be incorporated.” So if Ontario’s chemical industry, for instance, has well-established practices and terminologies used across the province, regulators would be wise to respect those and develop rules that incorporate them, even if those practices and terms aren’t exactly aligned with those used in, say, Alberta or Saskatchewan.

Regardless, work is afoot to maintain the regulatory standards. Ontario recently underwent a consolidation process whereby confined space regulations in five different sectors — industrial, construction, health care, residential and mining — became one regulation (O. Reg. 632/05) in the Occupational Health and Safety Act, enforceable as of July 1, 2011.

B.C. is getting ready to review its confined space regulations as well.

Myth 4: All you need is a confined space management plan.

Planning for work in confined space is important. But according to Safetyscope’s Morrison, it’s just the beginning. Practice makes perfect.

“Too often we have a plan but we don’t expect to have to deploy it, and we’re not adequately prepared when things go wrong,” he says.

Drills are crucial. Otherwise, when it’s time to put the plan into action, workers may panic — and that can be deadly.

Morrison points out that all too often the plan may specify that someone should be positioned outside of the confined space to monitor the work undertaken inside, and that the monitor should contact someone for help if a co-worker in the confined space is in danger. But because the plan hasn’t been practiced, the monitor may not know what he’s supposed to do. And instead of contacting the appropriate person for help, he may go into the confined space himself to try and save the situation.

That’s how you end up with multiple injuries or deaths in confined spaces, Morrison says. Worker one experiences trouble; worker two comes in to help worker one; both workers are overcome by whatever hazard the confined space contains.

“To watch somebody work looks really simple,” Morrison says. “But the work is in everything underneath.”

Myth 5: 911 emergency services double as on-site rescue.

Mansour says some organizations mistakenly believe that they’ve adequately developed an on-site rescue procedure as long as they’ve told their employees to dial 911 in case something happens in the confined workspace. But the truth of the matter is that companies need to develop an on-site rescue system than can be ready for immediate action to rescue a worker from a confined space. That responsibility belongs to the organization — not to the local ambulance, fire and police services. 

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