Confined Space Rescues

Two-thirds of all confined space fatalities occur among would-be rescuers. To prevent deaths, it is critical to use good confined space entry practices so there is no need for rescue operations. Remember, even a well-planned rescue can end up as a body retrieval. Rescues can be performed by any employee or a professional rescuer so long as he or she has been fully trained and qualified to act as a rescuer. Qualifications include knowledge of and experience working with all hazards associated with rescue and confined space entry operations.

At a minimum, employers and workers should treat all confined spaces as hazardous. Before entering a confined space to attempt a rescue, a person trained in the proper use of a calibrated, direct-reading instrument must also test for oxygen content, flammable gases and vapors, and potential toxic air contaminates in a confined space. You should never trust your senses to determine if the air in a confined space is safe. You cannot see or smell many toxic gases and vapors, nor can you determine if sufficient oxygen is present.

Reasons for Entering Confined Spaces

Entering a confined space may be done for various reasons. It is done usually to perform a necessary function, such as inspection, repair, maintenance (cleaning or painting), or similar operations which would be an infrequent or irregular function of the total industrial activity.

Entry may also be made during new construction. One of the most difficult confined space entries to control is that of unauthorized entry, especially when there are large numbers of workers and trades involved, such as welders, painters, electricians, and safety monitors.

A final and most important reason for entry would be emergency rescue. This, and all other reasons for entry, must be well planned before initial entry is made and the hazards must be thoroughly reviewed. Since deaths in confined spaces often occur because the atmosphere is oxygen deficient or toxic, confined spaces should be tested prior to entry and continually monitored. More than 60% percent of confined space fatalities occur among would-be rescuers; therefore, a well-designed and properly executed rescue plan is a must.

Fatalities can occur when the rescuers:

  • are overcome by their emotions
  • take unnecessary chances
  • do not know the hazards involved
  • do not have a plan of action
  • lack confined space rescue training

It is important to know the period of time for successful rescue is very limited. Otherwise, a rescue attempt will become body retrieval. After only four minutes without oxygen, it is very likely a worker will experience asphyxiation, which may result in brain damage or death.

Preventing Confined Space Rescuer Fatalities

Planning the rescue is paramount. Make sure rescue team members understand their duties, and practice, practice, practice!

Ensure the rescuer does not travel a greater distance than allowed by the air supply, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and escape cylinders. Analyze distance, space configurations, physical obstacles, and total time needed to enter the space, perform rescue operations, and leave the space. Leave the space immediately whenever a problem arises with respiratory protection equipment or whenever the attendant orders evacuation. Everyone involved in a rescue should assume the space is deadly and that entry rescue may be required in the worst case!

Rescue Equipment

The importance of having the right rescue equipment on hand can’t be stressed enough. Rescue equipment may include:

  • full body harness with retrieval line attached
  • wristlets (may be used in rescue when it can be shown that they are the safest and most effective means of rescue)
  • hand-cranked mechanical winch and tripod (required when entrant is five feet or more below the entrance)
  • ladder
  • explosion-proof lighting
  • stretcher
  • approved head protection
  • first aid equipment


Respiratory Protection

If there is even a remote possibility of other atmospheric contaminants, even though monitoring equipment readings appear to be within the normal ranges, rescuers should still use appropriate respiratory protection. Play it safe: Do not use air purifying respirators for confined space rescue.

If a hazardous atmosphere exists in the confined space such as toxic gases, an appropriate air-purifying respirator may be used. However, if the confined space has a lack of oxygen, an air-purifying respirator will do no good – there is no supply of oxygen to breath in the first place. In this situation, an entrant would need to wear an air-supplying respirator. An air-supplying respirator will supply breathable air and will protect the entrant from breathing in hazardous air from the atmosphere of the confined space.

For more information on this topic, take OSHAcademy courses 605 Confined Space Safety and 713 Confined Space Program.