Voice Communication — Essential for Work In Confined Space

Jan. 12, 2007
The advent of new technology plus the introduction of stricter safety regulations has changed how work is done in confined spaces.

by Terry Ibbetson

Old habits die hard. For generations, confined space workers have evolved ways of dealing with the hazards of their work place without the aid of technology or the help of mandatory regulation. The advent of new technology plus the introduction of stricter safety regulations has changed how work is done in confined spaces however, the legacy for survival handed down from the old days, is still widespread and unless recognized and corrected, will continue to overshadow real problems and delay possible solutions.

Considering that U.S. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Admin.) introduced the first dedicated regulation for the protection of confined space workers in 1993 tells its own story. However they are now with us in many countries, but the problem is getting rid of old habits so that the upcoming generation of confined space workers can use the regulations to build better and safer ways to do their work.

The new rule goes a long way to protect the interests of confined space workers. Preparation prior to entry is governed by the use of a Permit. For those spaces designated as needing a Permit, gas monitoring and ventilation equipment is called for, as is fall protection and breathing equipment. A safety attendant is deemed necessary for all entries and both entrants and safety attendants must undergo extensive training. In anticipation of problems, easy access to a fully trained and properly equipped rescue team is essential and a system for alerting a rescue team is also a requirement. Communication between entrant and safety attendant is required, and while the method can range from shouting, tugging ropes, hand signals or tapping, to radios or telephones, it must result in rapid, unambiguous messages between workers, even while wearing facemasks.

The rule clearly provides fixed guidelines for the physical protection of workers entering and working in confined spaces, but gives little or no consideration to its psychological effect on the mind of entrants.

Confined space by definition is not designed to be worked in on a continuous basis; it has limited access and egress and contains physical or atmospheric hazards. Entering a space can subject even seasoned entrants to feelings of claustrophobia, stress or panic. While these feelings can be controlled by workers during "normal" confined space entries; they can surface very quickly if a problem occurs with disastrous consequences.

The well being of entrants determines how they function at any given moment. We have learned through the study of ergonomics that the better people feel; the better they perform their jobs. We are also told that people working below their comfort level are more prone to errors due to poor decision-making caused by stress or panic. Entrants, no matter how experienced, are still human and while an error due to stress outside a space may be easily corrected, the same error made by entrants while inside a confined space could be their last.

The basic formula for a person's "level of well being" is a combination of mental and physical comfort. To downgrade either one of these will take that person below their "level of well being" or comfort threshold resulting in stress or panic that can adversely affect sound decision-making.

Consider mental side of the formula for "well being", humans need air, sustenance, sleep, relief from normal bodily functions and the knowledge that the body is physically protected from dangers such as falling, burning or contamination. In a confined space work situation we can assume that prior to entry the entrant has slept, eaten, drank and relieved bodily functions. Breathing equipment gives air, fall protection and special clothing give the necessary physical protection, so we can assume that this side of the formula is satisfied.

Looking at the "mental" side of the formula, while there is comfort in knowing that the body is protected during an entry, the mind cannot be fully at ease in an enclosed environment without having human contact on a continuous basis. There are numerous studies to support this statement, ranging from the effects of solitary confinement to loneliness being the primary cause of suicide, but to find out for your self consider doing the following: Find the smallest, darkest closet in your house, go in and close the door. When you can't stand it any longer come out and check how many minutes you lasted. Now enter the same closet, but take a telephone with you and be talking to a favorite friend before closing the door. You will stay in the closet (confined space) for as long as you have human contact.

We tend to forget that in our office, warehouse, factory, construction site or shop, we are surrounded by activity, we can hear voices and see people moving. Also we are in a spacious environment that is familiar, friendly and geared to our needs, all of which have a positive effect on our well-being. Confined space entrants have none of this. The space they enter is harsh and unfriendly. It was designed by engineers to function efficiently for a specific task, not for human occupancy. Entrants cannot rely on their surroundings for mind comfort and must rely on what can be taken into the space with them to accomplish this essential function.

Continuous electronic voice communication is the only vehicle available to entrants that provides the level of comfort needed to relieve fears of entry. Hearing a friendly voice allows entrants to maintain an acceptable comfort zone for the duration and keep feelings of claustrophobia and panic in check. To not feel alone!

Entrants who use voice communication equipment on a regular basis for confined space entry confirm that this is the case. They report feeling safer, more at ease and less stressful. They also say that as a result they work better, are more efficient and are much happier in their job. As an added benefit, safety attendants also report favorably on being able to communicate with entrants. Their job is less boring and being able to monitor entrants at all times inevitably leads to closer teamwork. With proper communication, work in a confined space is made easier, safer and in many cases, more productive.

Care must be taken when selecting communication equipment for this unique work environment. Confined spaces are very different from any other work area and must be treated accordingly. The two methods of electronic voice communication most considered are: wireless, using two-way radios and hard line, using a cable connected intercom system.

Radio equipment operates most efficiently when the transmitter and receiver are on the same plane, without obstruction and in line-of-site. As any professional communicator will confirm, metal or concrete with re-bar, which describes a majority of confined space environments, do not easily allow radio signals to penetrate. This is known to create dead spots or reduce signal strength due to bounce resulting in messages that are garbled or not received. The time taken to find a suitable transmit zone to repeat messages is wasted and could be costly. Also, two-way radios are typically half-duplex requiring "push-to-talk" for voice transmission. This does not allow continuous communication and removes the capability of entrants to work hands-free while communicating.

In a rescue situation where instant communication between team members is critical, remember that communication can be locked out by any radio on the system being keyed accidentally and also that radio conversations can be monitored by outside sources (for example the press).

Radio equipment is extremely effective when used by safety attendants outside spaces to maintain contact with their base or, in the event of a problem, to call for a rescue team.

The best overall choice for reliable communication in confined spaces is a hard line intercom system. A full duplex intercom system allows hands-free, private communication between safety attendants and their entrants for 100% of the time and provides the continuous human contact that is desired by most entrants during entry.

The benefits of having good communication with this type of system, however, must be weighed against the presence of a cable. When using supplied air-breathing apparatus, the cable can be attached to the airline, creating a single umbilical, which can be easily managed. In most cases, proper training with the equipment significantly reduces this as a problem.

No matter which equipment is selected, care must be taken to ensure its survival in this harsh environment. As with all electronic equipment, it must be electrically shielded. It must also be extremely rugged, resistant to chemicals and be environmentally sealed. Most importantly, as a majority of confined spaces are classified as being explosive, the possibility of the equipment being the cause an explosion must be eliminated. Equipment should therefore be Intrinsically Safe Approved by an accredited test facility for the explosive substances it may contact during entry.

Continuous voice communication for confined space workers is both necessary and practical. Apart from allowing full compliance with current regulations, having this type of communication brings entrants more in-line with what non-entrants expect as a normal part of their job. Human contact! Hearing a friendly voice while working in a space has proven to have a lifting effect on entrants by removing the stress of being alone in a hostile environment. With continuous voice communication, entrants work smarter, are less prone to errors and are therefore safer and more effective.

There is one more fact about this topic that should not be ignored. Introducing reliable voice communication equipment to any job situation that previously had none or used unreliable methods has always resulted in a dramatic increase in job efficiency. Workers regularly using good communication during confined space entry, have streamlined jobs and made them easier, resulting in higher efficiency and in many cases, greater productivity.

Given today's economy, any safety product that proves it can be purchased for dollars saved from increased productivity while providing a safer work environment must be taken seriously. Sometimes the old ways must be left behind in favor of better ways, which are more in keeping with today's environment. Electronic voice communication in confined space is a win, win situation. Everyone Benefits! Nobody Loses!

by: T. A. (Terry) Ibbetson, President
1160 Yew Avenue, P. O. Box 1540
Blaine, Washington 98231
Phone (206) 332-2020 or (800) 546-3405
Fax (206) 332-3312 or (800) 546-3410


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