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Confined Space Safety and Rescue: Challenges and Lessons Learned

Engulfment takes the lives of three workers in a trench collapse at a construction site. An employee dies instantly when a spark causes an internal explosion; workers had failed to properly inspect the tank he was cleaning for the presence of flammable materials. Firefighters are trapped and critically injured when oxygen — displaced from a room where ammonia was used in the manufacture of methamphetamine — sets up the perfect storm for an explosion and subsequent building collapse.

While they may not be a daily occurrence in the lives of most emergency response personnel, confined space rescues account for a disproportionate number of potentially devastating injuries and fatalities suffered by first responders and those they are attempting to rescue.

A confined space is defined as an area that is large enough for an employee to enter and perform work, but has limited or restricted means of ingress or egress and is not designed for continuous human occupancy. Examples include tanks, ship and barge hulls, mobile equipment, heavy industry/processing facilities, utility and communications installations and construction sites/trenches, to name a just few.

A permit-required confined space has one or more of the following characteristics:

  • It contains, or has a known potential to contain, a hazardous atmosphere.
  • It contains material with the potential for engulfment.
  • It is configured such that entrants could be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls, or floors that slope and taper to a smaller cross-section.
  • It contains any other recognized serious safety or health hazard.

Whether the result of human error, natural disaster or acts of terrorism, the human toll of confined space emergencies can be devastating — not only to rescue personnel, but also to bystanders and co-workers who make valiant, and often futile, efforts to bring victims to safety.

Collectively, atmospheric hazards (oxygen deficiency, oxygen enrichment, flammable gases or vapors and toxic gases or vapors) are responsible for more than half of all confined space fatalities, says Craig Schroll, CSP, SFPE, president of FIRECON and Z117 Committee member. The American Society for Safety Engineers (ASSE) is secretariat for the ANSI Z117.1 Safety Requirements for Confined Spaces standard, a voluntary consensus standard that focuses primarily on safety processes intended to avert the need for confined-space rescue, but which also includes a section that deals with emergency procedures and rescue issues.

Schroll explains that oxygen deficiency is the most frequently encountered of the atmospheric hazards, followed by the potential for explosion- or burn-related fatality due to the presence of flammable gases or vapors, and then by fatality due to exposure to toxic atmospheres. “There's a long list of other potential hazards associated with confined spaces,” he continues, “and incident commanders must make an effective assessment of these hazards prior to committing personnel within the space.”

“Who You Gonna Call?”

Regardless of the scenario, experts agree that there is no substitute for a proactive approach when dealing with confined-space rescues. Pittsburgh-based MSA, manufacturer of safety products, notes, “It's always prudent to treat unknown areas and their interior environments as if a confined space exists, and to take all necessary safety precautions.” And Schroll stresses that “recognizing hazards and taking effective action to control them or protect personnel from them is no less than critical.”

One person who is uniquely qualified to speak to the challenges of confined space rescues is Casey Davis, director of global QA/HSE for Parker Drilling Co. “You can't call 911 when disaster strikes on an oil rig in the middle of the Caspian Sea, or at a work site in the remote reaches of the New Guinea jungles. We need to be our own first responders, and everyone at Parker is trained and ready to do just that,” says Davis.

He goes on to note that, in the remote settings in which Parker personnel live and work, equipment can't be cascaded in for rescues. “Our workforce must be well trained and prepared, and the proper equipment needs to be staged and ready to perform at all times.”

While the confined-space rescue scenarios encountered by the Parker workforce might seem a bit exotic, the lessons learned from their unique perspective easily can be extrapolated to the “average” fire, police and EMS departments responding to hazardous materials calls or arriving on the scene of an open-earth trench collapse. And, according to Davis, the take-home message is Parker's unavoidably proactive stance; namely, to anticipate the worst — to properly train personnel to respond to the worst-case escalation and to ensure that needed resources and equipment are readily available.

Back to School: Confined Spaces 101

In keeping with Parker's commitment to control and respond to the hazards associated with confined-space entry and rescue, the company offers an uncommon training program that allows industry and rescue personnel to reap the rewards of Parker's uniquely acquired expertise (

Originally intended for hands-on tactical training in fire fighting and rescue for the energy sector, Parker has since responded to the need of the municipal response community to gain work experience with equipment such as drilling rigs, terminals for hydrocarbon storage and transport and so on. To date, roughly 2,000 students (most from the United States, the former USSR, Europe and Africa/Middle East) have completed the rescue course since the school's 1995 opening.

The rescue school consists of what Davis calls “three and a half days of intensive, hands-on, highly physical work.” He cites the example of a final exam that tests responders' ability to properly manage all aspects (including use of NIIMS based incident command and proper EHS regulatory compliance) of an attempted rescue of a downed crewman. The worker is trapped in a drilling mud tank, with limited ingress and egress, in a flammable and explosive environment — all on a full-size training rig that actually catches fire.

In keeping with the emphasis on proactive preparedness, the students gather equipment and other resources, devise a response plan and spend a day working through the scenario before attempting the rescue. All of this, says Davis, provides students not only with the actual planning and rescue experience, but also with the tools needed to manage the back-side of the incident — everything from the media, to other crew members, family, weather conditions and any other variables that could come into play.

If the training budget allows, Davis recommends that entire departments attend the school. Acknowledging that training dollars may be limited, he notes that leadership teams/supervisors who complete the program can then return to their departments and “cascade” the information to the rank-and-file responders.

Must-Have Equipment

In addition to the human toll, confined-space rescues are the heaviest “consumers” of first responder time and equipment, notes Davis. In the post-911 era, equipment to analyze and monitor hazardous conditions is relatively standard. Also critical for confined-space safety and rescues is equipment to enable first responders to self-rescue (ropes, tripod devices, rigging and lifting equipment to remove the injured or extract materials that may prevent proper rescue).

Equipment that tends to be viewed as specialized — such as the vacuum removal devices, long-reach tripod systems and personnel extraction devices usually seen on heavy rescue vehicles — can be costly, and smaller departments may have a hard time justifying such purchases for rescues that may account for only about 10 percent of a department's calls. This, says Davis, is where the concept of mutual aid becomes especially critical.

“The concept and practice of mutual aid is a huge advantage in the United States. It would, for example, be unlikely that a small volunteer fire department would have highly sophisticated rescue equipment on-hand. But with a mutual aid agreement, that same department could summon and receive such equipment whenever needed,” notes Davis, who explains that Parker has made a practice of sharing both equipment and expertise.

For the individual department, the most critical piece of equipment is a good atmospheric monitoring device to help personnel effectively assess atmospheric hazards, says Schroll.

Respiratory protection is another must-have when rescues are attempted. “Airline breathing apparatus is another important item; standard SCBA will often not fit into a confined space,” says Schroll.

Scott Health and Safety, a provider of choice for many fire departments, offers a number of options for respiratory protection for use specifically in confined-space rescues. Because of the potential for panic in such situations, along with limited space and visibility, equipment designed specifically confined space rescue can be life-saving.

The Ska Pak AT respirator, a type C/SCBA combination supplied-air respirator, provides what Scott calls “hands-free, panic-free” automatic transfer of air from the supplied air source to the escape/egress bottle.

Report Card: Room for Improvement?

According to Davis, first responders in the United States are, with the help of mutual aid, better prepared to respond to confined-space emergencies than are rescue organizations in many other parts of the world. There is, however, room for improvement.

Schroll notes that “most fire departments aren't as prepared for this specialized type of rescue as they could be.” He explains that “it's an extreme challenge to most fire departments to be as prepared as they might like for all that's currently being asked of them.” This especially is true in the context of demands that continue to grow in both scope and magnitude, with first responders reporting to fires, hazardous materials incidents, vehicle extrications, medical emergencies, a wide array of specialized rescues including confined space, structural collapses, high-angle rescues and terrorist acts.

Even so, says Scroll, every first-line responder must be trained to recognize a confined space, and to perform, at the very least, a basic hazard assessment. Combining this level of preparedness with a highly proactive approach to both training and equipment and, if feasible, a hands-on educational opportunity like the one offered by the Parker Drilling school will help to ensure that confined-space rescue endeavors end not with tragedy, but with success.

For More Information about Confined Space Safety

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