When Does a Confined Space Rescue Start? COMMUNICATION TO THE RESCUE

Any safety regulation that comes with a built-in plan for executing a rescue from the environment being regulated, speaks volumes about the dangers of working in that environment!

by Terry Ibbetson

Any safety regulation that comes with a built-in plan for executing a rescue from the environment being regulated, speaks volumes about the dangers of working in that environment!

Regulations for Confined Space entry fall into this category and you only have to look at the statistics to understand why. In normal work places, for every 1400 accidents reported, one results in a death or serious injury. In confined spaces, it is one in ten! Also, for every person dying in a confined space, almost two people die trying to execute a rescue. Many of these are professional rescuers.

In 1993 the USA became the first country to enforce dedicated Confined Space Regulations on a national scale. Since then many countries have followed suit including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain with other European Countries following soon. In a very short time frame, safety of workers in confined spaces has become a global issue, even though it has been a problem for generations.

The regulations were introduced to improve statistics by mandating that companies not only recognize, but inventory and label all confined spaces within their operations. They also mandate that workers understand the hazards of working in confined spaces, are properly trained and equipped to handle them and have access to a fully trained and fully equipped Rescue Team in the event of a problem.

The checks and balances needed to make this work in the millions of confined space entries done each year, became part of a Confined Space Entry Permit. This document records every aspect of every entry and has to be completed each time someone enters a confined workspace, or as it is named in some countries, a "Permit Required Confined Space".

As you can imagine, the Permit is a very important working document, which, if used correctly, guarantees safe entry for workers and the best possible chance of their being rescued in the event of a problem. The Permit is used as a record that lockout and tag procedures have been followed and safe levels of oxygen and explosive gasses are present prior to worker entry. Among other essential items, the permit also records the name of the Rescue Team who will respond if a problem occurs, along with how to contact them. The Rescue Team must have been informed of the entry in advance and agree to be listed on the Permit.

Unfortunately, like all important documents, the permit becomes more important after a problem occurs, as evidence that prescribed procedures were followed prior to the problem occurring. According to current statistics, confined space workers are more likely to die in the event of an accident than in any other job, and could very well take one or two fellow employees with them. For this reason, understanding how a confined space rescue can be prepared for in advance, should be very important to all companies responsible for these activities which are essential for them to remain in business. Liability is also a situation companies should try to avoid, especially when it involves the death of an employee, which could have been avoided.

The introduction of enforceable confined space regulations in the USA, created two separate entities. The first is the worker Entrant Team and the second, the Rescue Team. Each has a different reason for entering a space and each has a different set of priorities. Under regulation, both rely on each other for their very existence, however, if the safety of Entrants is to be guaranteed both should understand and anticipate each other's needs.

The responsibility for understanding leans more towards the people who will summon the Rescue Team. Unfortunately, few Entrant Teams fully understand the mechanics of a confined space rescue. Many do not realize that with better preparation they could significantly reduce the time taken to rescue a fellow worker in the event of a problem.

Bear in mind that Rescue Teams spend their lives finding ways to safely reduce rescue times, giving accident victims a better chance of survival. They choose their equipment carefully and train with it as a Team, so that when the time comes to execute a real rescue, the time taken is the least possible they can do. Anything that can be done by a victim's fellow Team members to shorten rescue time must therefore be considered an essential act.

We must not forget that a confined space rescue starts with the discovery that an Entrant is in trouble and ends when the Entrant is safely out of the space and in the care of medical personnel. If the concern is truly for the safe rescue of an Entrant, then the total time involved should be looked at a single entity to provide all Entrants and their rescuers with the best possible chance for a successful rescue.

Consider the following: After an Entrant goes down or indicates that there is a problem, the Safety Attendant should be the first person to know and with a minimum of elapsed time should be able to summon a Rescue Team. An on-site Rescue Team can be alerted by sounding an alarm, by radio, by telephone or by word of mouth. The Team will usually assemble at a pre-determined station to collect their equipment and be told where their services are needed on-site. An off-site Rescue Team can be alerted by radio or by telephone and must then respond as quickly as possible. Once at the scene the Rescue
Teams, whether from on-site or off-site, must assess the problem, prepare for the rescue and then execute the rescue to its completion.

The time-frame for any rescue is therefore made up of several very specific blocks of time:

  1. React Time: From when the Entrant has a problem until the time that the Safety Attendant recognizes that the Entrant has a problem.
  2. Contact Time: The time taken by the Safety Attendant to actually contact the Rescue Team.
  3. Response Time: The time taken for a Rescue Team to arrive at the scene of the rescue.
  4. Assessment Time: Time taken by a Rescue Team to assess the problem and determine what preparations are needed to perform a safe but efficient rescue.
  5. Preparation Time: Time taken by a Rescue Team to set up for the rescue.
  6. Rescue Time: Time taken for the actual rescue.

1. React Time: The job of the Safety Attendant is to Communicate with Entrants as necessary. However, the present wording in regulations does not include any firm direction as to how this should be accomplished. For example, if the "Communication" consists of tugging a rope or tapping and the "as necessary" is set at every 10 or 15 minutes then, in a worst case situation, the time between an Entrant having a problem and the Safety Attendant recognizing the problem could be the difference between the life or death of the Entrant. This time lapse is caused by poor communication between Attendant and Entrant. Steps can be taken to eliminate it by specifying voice communication equipment be used for all entries. With continuous voice communication, Attendants will know instantly if Entrants are experiencing problems.

This will allow them to fulfill their role as protector, by calling the Rescue Team and attempting to talk Entrants through a self-rescue.

2. Contact Time: Procedures for summoning a Rescue Team are included in regulations, which typically call for appropriate contacts, telephone numbers, etc. to be listed on the permit. Also the named Rescue Team should have been advised of the entry in advance. Assuming procedures are followed correctly, this time should be minimal.

3. Response Time: This time is influenced by many different elements, which relate directly to the location of the Rescue Team (on-site or off-site) and the type of entry being performed by the victim. For example, if the victim was using supplied air, either from an air-line or SCBA, at the time of the accident, loss of air would make the victim dependant on the air in a 5 or 10-minute escape pack. In this event, location of the Rescue Team becomes an important factor. Companies relying on off-site Rescue Teams should assess the types of entries being performed on their site and consider having a stand-by Rescue Team on-site when doing entries with breathing equipment. This action will reduce Response Time to a minimum.

4. Assessment Time: Starts when the Rescue Team arrives at the scene. The outcome of this important step dictates how the rescue will be performed and what equipment will be used to bring the victim out safely and efficiently. During this time the hazards that will face rescuers entering the space are identified and prepared for.

Knowing the physical layout of the space and surrounding areas is essential and much of the information, if not visible or documented, should be available from the Safety Attendant and other key employees of the company.

Establishing contact with the victim (Initial Patient Contact) is of primary importance and commences with the arrival of the Team. Whether conscious or not, the victim can provide the Team with essential data for a safe and efficient rescue. The faster that contact can be made with the victim, the sooner the rescue will start. If the problem site was utilizing continuous voice communication equipment for their entry then, with communication already established, the Rescue Team can make Initial Patient Contact immediately on arrival, reducing the overall assessment time significantly.

It is also important to consider the positive effect on both victim and Safety Attendant of having voice contact during the wait period.

5. Preparation Time: Starts when the assessment is complete. The length of this time block, which includes monitoring the space, rope rigging, donning the harness's and breathing equipment etc., is controlled by the experience and training of the Rescue

6. Rescue Time: This is the actual time taken for the rescue and commences when the first rescuer enters the confined space. This is a critical time for both victim and rescuers, and must be used safely and efficiently. Rescue Teams are constantly looking for ways to reduce Rescue Time without detracting from the safety of any Team member, while increasing their overall efficiency.

The type of equipment used by the Team, their rescue technique and previous training all have a direct bearing on the amount of time taken for the rescue. This includes the time taken to reach the victim, to address immediate medical needs, prepare the victim for removal, move the victim to the entrance of the space and finally to remove the victim from the space. Essential life protection equipment used includes breathing apparatus, gas monitors, lifting and fall protection devices and communication equipment all designed to safeguard Team members and allow them to execute safe, efficient rescuers.

Based on knowing the elements of a confined space rescue, we can determine that by using communication equipment for all entries, in the event of a problem the React Time will be eliminated and when the Rescue Team arrives, the Assessment Time will be drastically reduced or eliminated. Also having the safety Attendant in continuous contact, the victim may be more relaxed and less stressed when the Rescue Team arrives.

Apart from saving time during a rescue situation, having good communication during any confined space entry has a calming effect on Entrants and could prevent problems from occurring. Many other benefits can be derived from having communication for entry; however, it must be the right kind of 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 is extremely effective when used by Safety Attendants outside spaces to maintain contact with their base or, to call for a Rescue Team if needed. Portable Radios operate most efficiently when the transmitter and receiver are on the same plane, without obstruction. Radio signals do not penetrate metal or concrete with re-bar, which describes a majority of confined space environments. Radio communication in spaces is therefore subject to dead spots or reduced signal strength resulting in messages that are garbled or not received.

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 air-line, 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 equipment must not be the cause of an explosion. Equipment should therefore carry Intrinsically Safe Approval from an accredited agency (CSA), for the explosive substances it may be exposed to during entry.

The value of having the right tool for the job is a principle we are all familiar with. While life saving equipment is essential for confined space entry, it is abundantly clear that voice communication helps them use it safely. Communication also provides peace of mind to anyone entering a confined space. In this environment, the right communication equipment is a tool for the worker that provides continuous, hands free voice contact with outside Attendants and bridges the dark gap between a problem occurring and the arrival of a rescuer.

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
e-mail: [email protected]


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