Maintaining safety at work is, these days, something that’s taken very seriously. From preventing trips, slips and falls while on the job, to the correct posture for carrying heavy weights, we’ve all never been so conscious of health and safety at work. But what about when working in confined spaces? It may sound like a fairly uncommon issue, but when you’re working in a silo, for instance, it is of the utmost importance to be aware of any potential risks and to follow any best practice guides and regulations to a tee.
You may not even realise it, but working in confined spaces is actually regulated by the government with the ‘Confined Spaces Regulations Act 1997’. There’s a very good reason for this – according to the Health and Safety Executive, which oversees safety regulations, a ‘number of people are killed or seriously injured in confined spaces each year in the UK.’ With the stakes so high, naturally you need to take precautions to prevent such tragedies, and to limit the risks involved with working in confined spaces.
What Are Confined Spaces
The HSE defines confined spaces as ‘any space of an enclosed nature where there is a risk of death or serious injury from hazardous substances or dangerous conditions,’ and goes on to explain that while some spaces, such as silos, sewers and storage tanks, are easily identified as a confined space, others are less obvious. These include combustion chambers in furnaces, vats, and poorly ventilated rooms. It’s impossible, the HSE say, to provide a full comprehensive list, given that during any work or maintenance, anywhere could potentially be turned into a confined space.
The Danger Zone
Now you know what kind of spaces we’re talking about, you can probably understand what sort of things may be considered dangerous in those locations. Topping the list of potential risks is a lack of oxygen, poisonous gases, fumes and vapours, and liquids and solids that are liable to release gases or rain down on workers when disturbed.
For us, working in silos, we’re acutely aware of the dangers highlighted by the HSE, who warn that ‘free-flowing solids, such as grain, can partially solidify or ‘bridge’ in silos, causing blockages which can collapse unexpectedly.’ That’s not all, they also draw attention to the highly concentrated dust that’s often found inside flour silos.
Prevention is Better
Of course, the HSE has a few ideas about avoiding, where possible, any potential risks. Top of that list is… not entering the confined space. Sound advice, perhaps, but not to a company that specialises in cleaning silos. Their second, far more sensible suggestion, is to always follow a safe system of work when entering a confined space. This is followed by a reminder that it’s the duty of employers to ensure that there are adequate emergency procedures put in place.
These safe working systems include appointing a supervisor, whose job it is to oversee the entire operation, and who’s strongly aware of all potential risks and the precautions in place to prevent them. It’s the supervisor’s job to check that all safety checks are carried out. Safe systems at work will also take into account who’s doing the job – are they qualified, are they healthy, do they understand what’s required of them? – as well as the tools that are used to carry out the work. As a matter of fact, all equipment used in confined spaces need to adhere to the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2002 and the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992.
In addition to this, the environment itself must also be looked at, with workers taking into account the entrances to the confined space, and testing the air. One of the most important aspects of the entire safe system is, of course, communication. This is because a solid line of communication not only helps prevent accidents, but can also be used should an accident occur.
Confined spaces, whilst not always clearly defined, represent a very serious threat when the appropriate precautions are not carried out. It’s vital to approach any work in these environments with total professionalism and an understanding of the risks before even starting the job.