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How to Overcome Instincts to Improve Safety

Confined Space  |   May 29, 2020  |   Dante Moore

No matter who you are or what you do, one major challenge that we all face is overcoming ingrained behaviors to change our actions. Sometimes, these ingrained behaviors make it difficult for us to remember to do something simple, like run an errand on the way home from work. Other times, our ingrained behaviors can put our lives at risk.

As humans, our first instinct is usually an action we take without much thought. When someone around us is in danger, our instinct is to help. We tend to provide aid to others in emergency situations without thinking about the possibility of putting ourselves at risk. In some cases, this behavior is helpful, like when we catch a toddler before he falls and hits his head. Unfortunately, there are plenty of times when this behavior can make a dangerous situation even more dire. For example, even though you have good intentions, slamming on your car’s brakes or swerving to avoid hitting a squirrel or other small animal in the road could cause a dangerous multi-car pileup.

While we always want to act swiftly, we also need to be sure that the actions we take to help others won’t cause further harm to ourselves or other people around us. What we do and how we decide to do it can ultimately determine the outcome of the situation.

The Danger of Relying on Instincts in Confined Spaces

When it comes to working in confined or enclosed spaces, our decision-making process becomes even more important. Whether you work in or around confined spaces regularly or simply work at a site that has them, it’s important to understand the additional dangers that these spaces can pose. Because of these dangers, agencies like OSHA have issued guidelines to help us understand the requirements for working in these environments.

One of the biggest requirements that we must adhere to is the use of atmospheric gas monitors. We use these monitors to test the quality of the air prior to entry, checking that the space is clear of all toxic and combustible gases and has a safe oxygen level. These pre-entry tests help ensure that when a worker goes into the space, he or she won’t face immediate danger before even starting work. After pre-entry sampling, we must also monitor the space continuously while the worker is inside. Atmospheric conditions can change quickly, and without continuous monitoring, a worker could be exposed to toxic and combustible gases without knowing it.

Even with guidance on how to use gas monitors to safely work in confined spaces, we continue to hear horror stories. The majority of the stories that we hear have one thing in common: multiple injuries or deaths when workers rush in to help a fellow worker. When we see a fellow worker in need, our instinct is to rush in to save him or her. But this instinct can be life-threatening in the presence of gas hazards. Without thinking twice or taking the time to understand why our teammate has fallen or is unresponsive, we enter the space to provide aid, only to end up lying next to the person we intended to help.

In this situation—even with proper training—our human instinct is often to react immediately and attempt to rescue our teammate, whether we’ll make it out alive or not.  The sad truth is that this ingrained behavior of helping others is the reason why 60% of confined space deaths are would-be rescuers, or those who are killed or injured while attempting to help another person.

Using Instincts + Insights

When our instincts are fallible and doing nothing is not an option, we can turn to technology to help us make better decisions.

Technology in gas monitors now allows us to make smarter, faster, and safer decisions that can help prevent multiple fatalities from a confined or enclosed space. Some handheld and area gas monitors come equipped with wireless connectivity that shares gas, man-down, and panic alarms from monitor to monitor. This technology has been designed so that as soon as the equipment is powered on, it automatically connects with other monitors on the same network to share gas readings from inside the confined space to monitors outside of the space.

When the gas monitors are paired together, we can easily see what our peers are experiencing. If a teammate’s monitor goes into alarm, we can easily see who’s monitor is in alarm, why the monitor is alarming, and determine what protective measures we need to take prior to attempting a rescue.

As an example, Jane, who is working inside a confined space, was suddenly exposed to 300 ppm of H2S and is now lying unconscious within the confined space. Jane’s monitor goes into alarm for the 300ppm of H2S and her lack of movement triggers a man-down alarm as well. John, who is currently outside of the confined space, sees Jane’s high H2S reading and man-down alarm on his own monitor. Now that John knows the situation, he can quickly decide to contact others, ventilate the area, or determine the appropriate equipment to protect himself before he makes a rescue attempt. Because of the wireless technology that is built into their gas monitors, John can make a smart decision within seconds based on insights, not just instincts.

Aside from saving lives, one of the biggest advantages to this technology is that it enables connectivity in areas without cellular or wi-fi infrastructure. It is also important to note that the network is built into the monitors and only requires an individual to turn on the monitor to establish communication with other monitors – no IT support needed.

Working in hazardous environments, especially in confined or enclosed area, will always be a challenge. However, if we learn how to change our behavior and adopt the latest technologies into our practices, we will be able to work more efficiently and save lives.