A quote from the 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke” perfectly sums up the problems that we all face with confined spaces: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach.” Approximately 60% of all deaths in confined spaces are rescuers[1], because the men and women inside the space can’t communicate about the dangers within. According to a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study, the majority (over 55%) of these deaths are because of atmospheric hazards. People routinely die because they don’t know that the atmosphere they are about to walk into is filled with deadly concentrations of gas. The best way to erase atmospheric-­­related deaths in confined spaces is through proper use of gas detection and leveraging technology to communicate those hazards to all would-be rescuers. We need to solve our communication problem and understand how to properly rescue those we cannot reach.

monitoring confined spaces

A confined space attendant’s job can be made easier with wireless gas detectors.

Failure #1: No real-time Peer-to-Peer gas hazard communication: Historically gas detection devices have been very good at alerting the person wearing the device of the hazards. However, they have been terrible at letting anyone else in the work group know about these hazards. Given the statistics on confined space deaths, shouldn’t rescuers know about those atmospheric conditions before entering and attempting rescue? And shouldn’t the attendant know about the entrants’ readings in real time anyway? With the advances in wireless communication in gas detection devices, we need to be clear on what the appropriate means for communicating this information should be. While devices that can communicate the readings to a remote person via the internet could provide benefit, it does absolutely nothing for those in the immediate work group who could fall under the “would-be” aforementioned “60%” of rescuers. Peer-to-peer gas detection communication, such as LENS™ Wireless, is the best way to let those who would be in immediate danger know of the hazard, so they can make the best decisions in real time. Additionally, technologies like LENS allow for communication between personal and area monitors so that users can easily place these monitors in confined spaces and communicate gas information without a person having to be in the atmosphere to begin with. Simple communication investments can be made to easily engineer these ad-hoc networks to deliver the critical information to those whose lives depend on it most.

Failure #2: Not abiding by the 2-by-2 rule: Before entering confined spaces, one should test the atmosphere before entry. That is overall common sense and accepted knowledge. However, how one should go about that is one of the most commonly misunderstood items when it comes to proper gas detector use. To outline this juxtaposition, let me use a common example; if someone was fishing, would he immediately reel in his line if no fish bit, then determine no fish were in the lake? No! Well why is that? We all know that fishing is a process, it takes time, skill, and patience to get what you are really looking for, right? Then explain to me why so many people think that they can drop a line of tubing into a space, wait a few seconds, then immediately determine that space is safe? The 2-by-2 Rule was established to have simple, clear guidance to determine whether a space is safe. The rule states that it takes 2 minutes of sampling time PLUS… 2 seconds for every one foot of tubing. That is the amount of tubing connected, not the size of the space. Here is a common scenario, if sampling a 10 ft space with 20 ft of tubing attached, how long would that take to do the first sample? 2 minutes and 40 seconds; that is 2 minutes plus 2 seconds per foot (20 feet of tubing). And keep in mind, that is per stratum. Please stop “reeling in” your tubing so quickly. Proper testing takes time, skill, and patience. Use this time to be aware of all the other dangers you are about to face when entering this pace.

Failure #3: Lowering monitors down on strings/ropes: I know this might offend those who routinely practice this, but come on folks. It is the year 2018 and attaching a key piece of safety equipment to a string/rope is the best we can do to test the atmosphere? Please, just stop. Properly using a monitor with a pump (either integral or attached) is by far the best way to see the real-time readings and accurately sample the space. Otherwise you are unable to properly see the gas readings in real time or prevent the monitor from unnecessary damage. Even worse, you could risk a life by attempting to rescue a monitor that was dropped into the space. Let’s hope you brought a backup monitor in that case.

confined spaces monitoring

Continuously monitoring a confined space helps to ensure that atmospheric conditions do not unknowingly become hazardous.

Failure #4: Lack of continuously monitoring: Just because the atmosphere was determined safe before you entered (assuming you used the 2-by-2 rule) …doesn’t mean that atmosphere is now static and won’t change. Often the work being performed in confined spaces is dynamically changing the environment to disrupt old components and introduce new ones. The only way to determine that the atmosphere is always safe is to continuously monitor. Just because you put a blower in the space to ventilate doesn’t mean that A). The air being blown in is clean (especially when it is near an exhaust) or B). That the airflow is proper and can mitigate any hazards.

Please take time this month to review your program for confined spaces and go through the scenario of an atmospheric incident. Put yourself in the shoes of the person who is about to enter a fatal atmosphere…did they check a box during training? Or do they have the proper entry habits? Now put yourself in the shoes of their co-workers/friends whose minds would be racing to help save them. Do they have all the information they need about this environment in real time? We don’t have to accept a failure to communicate as the norm for deaths in confined spaces. We can leverage technology and best practices to eliminate death on the job.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/94-103/pdfs/94-103.pdf?id=10.26616/NIOSHPUB94103

This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of OH&S magazine.

Want to read more about wireless connectivity in confined spaces? Check out the article  “Using Area Monitors for Confined Space Entries