Official advice from the British Health and Safety Executive suggests avoiding working in confined spaces wherever possible, given the numerous hazards involved. But of course on a practical level, that’s just not possible. Like it or not, countless tradespeople across the UK have no option but to complete their jobs in the tight quarters of confined spaces, so in order to minimise the risk of danger to their health and safety, certain precautions have to be taken.
Gas detection systems obviously constitute a major part of the risk mitigation for confined spaces, as toxic gases are among the single biggest dangers that employees will face. We’ll cover this in a little more detail below – but first, let’s quickly refresh the basics.
The definition of a confined space, and the most common dangers
The HSE essentially defines a confined space as an area that’s substantially (but not always entirely) enclosed, and poses a reasonably foreseeable risk illness, injury or death due to fires, explosions, loss of consciousness, asphyxiation or drowning. Confined spaces are often small and restrictive for the worker, but not necessarily always – it could be something as large as a grain storage silo for example, with capacity of hundreds of cubic metres.
Here are some quick examples of typical enclosed spaces:
• Storage tanks or silos
• Reaction vessels
• Vats or combustion chambers
Spaces like these generally have small (and often single) points of entry or exit, which can massively magnify the danger to workers if they’re not able to swiftly get themselves out of the space in the event of a fire, or it’s being rapidly filled by a liquid or toxic gases.
Not every danger will be down to an external factor or agent – certain hazards may also be posed by materials or states that you’d normally expect to find within the space itself. For example, it’s not unheard of for workers to be put in danger of asphyxiation by airborne elements like dust or grain in agricultural silos.
Key precautions to take
As we touched on above, if there’s any chance that the job can be completed without sending anyone into an enclosed space, then all possible avenues should be explored first.
However, in the event that the job can only be completed with a human working in an enclosed space, then making a thorough risk assessment is a vital first step. As we touched on above, gas detection should be one of the foremost concerns at this stage.
You’ll want to consider:
• What toxic fumes are likely to pose a threat
• How these toxic fumes can be detected
• How they can be ventilated or removed from the space
• Whether any valves can be locked shut to prevent liquids or gas from flooding in
• Are there any likely fire risks? How can they be mitigated?
If one of your workers is going into a confined space without sufficient area to breathe, then they’ll need to be equipped with a suitable breathing apparatus. You’ll also have to consider how they’ll be monitored for as long as they’re in the space.
How will you know if there is a problem? What happens if they pass out inhaling toxic gas? Will anyone know to help them? And on a related note, what is your rescue plan to get them out if they encounter difficulty? (It’s not enough to simply rely on the emergency services – in situations like these, every passing minute can make all the difference between life and death.)
It’s also worth talking to the employees in question before they begin the job, and making your own informed decisions on their judgement. Paradoxically, it can sometimes be the most experienced employees who end up making the most elementary mistakes. Sometimes experience can lead to overconfidence, and overconfidence can lead to bravado and carelessness. If someone has to go into a confined space to do the job, make sure you fully trust them to follow proper procedure to the letter.
Gas detection in confined spaces
Before anyone enters a confined space to start working, it’s first a good idea to test the interior atmosphere from outside, which you can do with a portable gas leak detector. Bear in mind that some toxic gases are lighter or heavier than air, so it may be useful to take samples at different heights within the space.
This shouldn’t be a one-off job – it’s wise to take these readings again every time someone is about to re-enter the space, and continuously monitor the levels for as long as it’s occupied. All this should ultimately give you complete peace of mind that your employees are being given an acceptable level of protection from these notorious ‘silent killers’.
And if you’re considering investing in some new cutting-edge gas detection equipment to safeguard your workers, that’s exactly where we can help here at Gas Alarm Systems. With more than 15 years of experience behind us, we’re market-leading experts in the design, development and maintenance of gas leak detection equipment, and our extensive range includes a number of carbon monoxide detectors to keep your premises safe.
Feel free to take a look at our fixed products or portable products with these links, or if you have any questions or need any advice, by all means call us on 01423 862240, and we’ll be happy to see how we can help.