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Frequently Asked Questions About Confined Spaces

Confined spaces are a common trouble spot for employers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has special regulations for some, but not all, types of confined spaces. Employers often have questions about how to ensure safety in confined spaces and follow OSHA's complex regulations. Below, we provide answers to some basic questions employers have about confined spaces.

What is a confined space?

A confined space is an area that is not designed for people, but is large enough for workers to enter. A confined space has limited or restricted entries and exits. Examples of confined spaces are:

  • Tanks
  • Vessels
  • Silos
  • Storage bins
  • Hoppers
  • Vaults
  • Pits
  • Manholes
  • Ductwork

This list is not exhaustive, however, and many other confined spaces could exist at a worksite.

When does a confined space require a permit?

OSHA requires work permits in some types of confined spaces. A space may require a permit if it:

  • Has the potential to become a hazardous atmosphere
  • Has material that could engulf someone who enters
  • Has floors that slope down and walls that converge inward to an area that could trap someone
  • Has unguarded machinery, heat stress, live wires or other safety or health hazards

What must an employer do to mark a confined space that requires a permit?

Spaces that require permits must be clearly marked. They must also have controlled access and be limited to authorized personnel, have a written system for entries into the space, and be monitored by an attendant outside the space. Other requirements include safety training and procedures for evaluating and testing the space.

What are the biggest dangers of confined spaces?

The most obvious threat of a confined space is the risk of entrapment. However, workers in confined spaces can also be exposed to hazards such as asphyxiation, which is actually the leading cause of death in these spaces. According to Occupational Health and Safety magazine, these deaths often result from oxygen deficiency, exposure to toxic atmospheres or ingesting sawdust or other particulate matter. Workers can fall into narrow pipes and be asphyxiated because of compression to their torsos.

In other cases, workers have been burned, dismembered or crushed by equipment inside confined spaces.

What's the best way to perform a rescue in a confined space?

It depends. In many cases, nonentry rescue can be the safest way to extricate someone from a confined space. In others, the situation may call for emergency service teams with in-depth training and specialized equipment.

A lawyer with knowledge of OSHA law can help you train your employees to evaluate whether you need a permit for a confined space, prepare a rescue plan for emergencies. A lawyer with OSHA knowledge and experience needs to assist you if OSHA investigates or cites you for a violation involving a confined space.

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