Common Confined Space Myths

Almost every industry contains tight spaces that are considered “confined.”  This is because the space may hinder the activities of any worker who must enter, work in, and exit them.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) uses the term “confined spaces” to describe these areas.

Confined spaces vary in size, shape, and location.  However, they often present challenging conditions, from limited movement or hazardous air, that could cause hazards for workers.  For example, workers who work in process vessels must squeeze in and out through narrow openings.

OSHA defines more than 20 major sectors of industry and labor with various types of confined spaces, including:

  • tanks
  • vessels
  • silos
  • storage bins
  • vaults
  • manholes
  • tunnels
  • pipelines

Here is your chance to test your confined space knowledge!  Improving worker safety starts with recognizing the real threats and debunking five common myths.

Myth #1:  Falls aren’t an issue in confined spaces.

Confined spaces need the same level of fall protection as above ground work-at-height.  Workers at height require fall protection for good reason, but accidental falls can also happen in confined spaces.

A manhole is one example of a confined space that doubles as a fall hazard.  If you don’t have the necessary fall protection equipment, it puts workers at risk of falling through an unguarded opening as soon as the cover or hatch is removed.  Falls while entering or exiting confined spaces is fairly common.  The falls are often caused by old and outdated climbing structures and challenging space restrictions.  In some instances, fumes can cause a loss of consciousness, which can affect the workers who enter the space.

The use of reliable fall protection equipment, such as guardrails, barriers, and self-retracting lifelines or lanyards will prevent accidental falls.

Myth #2: All confined spaces require a permit.

Tight spaces are found on almost every job site, however; only spaces that meet OSHA’s definition of a confined space AND contain health or safety hazards require a permit.  A thorough evaluation of the confined space, which includes atmospheric testing, should be conducted before anyone enters the space.

To require a permit, OSHA specifies a confined space must meet one or more of the following conditions:

  • contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere
  • contains a material that has the potential to engulf an entrant
  • has walls that converge inward or floors that slope downward
  • contains any other recognized safety or health hazards, such as unguarded machinery, exposed live wires, or heat stress

Myth #3:  Non-entry rescue is always the best solution for a confined space rescue.

Some confined spaces contain hazardous atmospheres, oxygen-deficient air, and potential engulfment.  Therefore, non-entry rescue procedures can be the safest approach for all involved parties.  However, even though non-entry rescue is usually recommended, determining the smartest and safest rescue approach depends on each situation.

In many cases, confined space rescues are often too complex and dangerous for a non-entry rescue performed by an entry attendant with little or no training.  Emergency service have more in-depth training and use specialized equipment that is necessary to save a worker who is trapped inside a confined space.  Keep in mind, however, the only time an entry rescue should be performed is when non-entry rescue poses a greater hazard to the worker.

Myth #4:  Confinement is the most dangerous threat of confined space work.

In many cases, confinement poses the most danger to the worker.  In other cases, confined space areas put workers closer to additional hazards, such as asphyxiating atmospheres or the moving parts of a machine.

Asphyxiation is the leading cause of death in confined spaces.  In permit-required confined spaces, it usually occurs because of oxygen deficiency or from exposure to toxic atmospheres.

OSHA has also documented cases of workers where victims were burned inside a confined space, dismembered, or crushed by moving or rotating machinery inside mixers.

Keys to a Safer, More Informed Workplace

Correcting common misconceptions about confined space is important to creating a safer and more knowledgeable workforce.  Safety professionals must be responsible to taking the knowledge and putting it into action.  You need to take the time to recognize the importance of safety equipment, evaluating whether a formal permit is required at your site, and preparing a detailed rescue plan for emergencies.

OSHAcademy course 605:  Confined Space Safety  discusses the types of confined spaces an employee may enter and the type of training needed to protect them from the hazardous materials that may exist inside a confined space.