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Creating a Confined Space Rescue Plan: Every Step You Need

By Daniel Clark | Last updated: June 14, 2021
Presented by Honeywell Industrial Safety
Key Takeaways

The majority of confined space fatalities are from rescue attempts. Proper planning is critical.

Caption: Permit-Required Confined Space Sign Source: CTRPhotos / iStock

Conducting a rescue in a confined space involves negotiating unique and difficult hazards. Seconds count – there is no time to think, coordinate, or organize beyond what is absolutely necessary.

Failure to plan properly can mean the difference between a successful rescue and a body recovery. It can mean the difference between one casualty and several. In fact, the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) claims that 60% of confined space fatalities consist of would-be rescuers entering the space without adequately protecting themselves.

Preparation is key. And using a structured approach to developing a rescue plan gives you the best chances in an emergency.

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Creating a confined space rescue plan requires special attention. This guide provides an overview of the steps that will help direct this process.

Step 1: Understand the Emergency

Emergencies come in many varieties, so the first consideration should be “what happened?”

The rescue effort needs to be appropriate to the nature of the emergency. There’s no need to execute a tactical operation if a worker simply feels nauseous and can safely exit the space themselves.

Workers entering confined spaces need to be trained on how to recognize symptoms of hypoxia or narcosis in case air monitoring fails, ideally giving them time to self-rescue. Despite the simplicity, self-rescue is still considered a type of “rescue” by some definitions and is preferable where possible to basically any other rescue type because it doesn’t involve additional parties.

(Learn more about The Dangers of Gas in a Confined Space.)

Rescue plans, however, mainly deal with interventions by rescuers or rescue teams. They pick up from the point at which self-rescue is no longer possible.

Rescues can be offensive (rescue) or defensive (recovery). The latter is a situation where the rescued worker is unlikely to be revived. Due to the nature of hazards in confined spaces such as hazardous atmospheres, response times need to be incredibly short to be effective. In as little as 4-6 minutes, a rescue effort can turn into a recovery effort.

Timelines vary for both rescue types. For example, a rescue for a worker who breaks their leg inside a vessel is certainly an emergency, but it is less time-sensitive than one involving a contaminated atmosphere. There wouldn’t be a frantic rush to get them out, even though this would be an "offensive" type of rescue.

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(Learn about Workplace First Aid Basics for Broken Bones.)

Step 2: Conduct a Site Assessment

Well before any confined space entry takes place on a site, those spaces have to be identified, classified, and labeled.

A “confined space” is any area not designed for continuous human occupancy, with a limited means of ingress and egress. Whether or not a permit is required for simple entry to these spaces may vary depending on their characteristics, but certain spaces always need a permitting system.

Permit-required confined spaces have the same properties as non-permit spaces, but also have the potential to develop a hazardous atmosphere, contain engulfment hazards, converging walls, or sloping floors that open to another area where a worker could become trapped.

Confined spaces on a site should be assessed to determine what special equipment or procedures may be involved when conducting a rescue operation.

Step 3: Ensure That Permit Procedures Are in Place and Working

OSHA requires employers to develop a permitting system for allowing workers into confined spaces. Permits have to include information about the location, authorized personnel, and hazard control. This information can be invaluable to the rescue process.

Permits must include the following information:

  • Identification of the confined space
  • Purpose of the entry/nature of the task involved
  • Date and authorized duration of the entry
  • Authorized entrant names
  • Attendant name (must be present the entire time the space is occupied)
  • Name of the entry supervisor
  • Hazards and potential hazards
  • Controls used to isolate hazardous energy (lockout/tagout)
  • Acceptable entry conditions
  • Results of air monitoring
  • Designated rescuers
  • Communication methods between entrants and attendants
  • Equipment that will be used
  • Additional permits, such as for "hot work" done in the confined space

Step 4: Create the Rescue Plan

Rescue plan parameters should be decided on for all confined spaces, then documented and trained. Knowledgeable and experienced individuals should collaborate to decide how these general categories apply to their organization’s activities.

  • Assignment of roles – Who is going to be needed to conduct an effective rescue? Can external resources be used or does a rescue team need to be trained for the site?
  • Personnel needed – How many are needed and what training should they have?
  • Equipment and material needed – For most confined space entry, certain basics will be needed, such as harnesses, winch equipment, atmospheric testing apparatus, rescue supplies, and medical supplies.
  • Communication equipment and guidelines – What methods of communication are to be used (including internal and external communication requirements)? Determine which channels to use on radios, who to contact and when, and the appropriate information to record and communicate.
  • Coordination of other agencies - Notification/reporting and other emergency responders.
  • Confined space characteristics - Type, function, configuration, construction, size, and entry and egress points.
  • Monitoring – A monitor is a trained person who will keep track of who enters the space, ensure that all who enter are trained and authorized, and continuously monitor the air quality in the space.
  • Lockout isolation of energy sources – Proper isolation is critical to safe confined space entry, ensuring that hazardous energy can’t reach the workers inside. Ideally, each worker will have attached their personal lock to a lockout mechanism before they are allowed entry.

(Find out How to Safely Rescue Someone from a Confined Space.)

Additionally, protocol for certain specific types of scenarios should be considered, including:

  • Ventilation of space – Air movers might have to be used to ventilate hazardous atmospheres out of the space or move fresh air into it. This is a consideration for both breathing and the potential for fire/explosion.
  • Rescuer air supply – If the atmosphere inside the space poses a hazard to the rescuer, they will need supplied air in the form of a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) or a supplied-air breathing apparatus (SABA).
  • Rigging – Is fall protection needed? Is there a need or use for a winch system, or can one be used for simpler and faster extraction in case of emergency? Are the rigging requirements for hoisting materials or equipment?
  • Control of a perimeter around the scene – Who is responsible, and what procedures are used?

Step 5: Drills

It is not enough to create a plan. Emergency preparedness means the plan has been tested and the critical actors have had a chance to practice. This means that rescuers have tested out access to confined space, practiced removing casualties (dummies or volunteers), moved the necessary equipment into place and used it. Success of the drill has to be reviewed so that opportunities for improvement and deficiencies can be identified.

For all things Confined Space, check out our Confined Space Knowledge Center.

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Written by Daniel Clark

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Daniel Clark is the founder and President of Clark Health and Safety Ltd., providing safety and quality consultation across various industries in Calgary, Alberta. Daniel has a Bachelor of Science degree, certification in health and safety, certificates in both CAD design and CNC, auditing certifications and the designation of Canadian Registered Safety Professional. Being raised and practicing in Calgary, the heart of Canada’s energy industry, most of Daniel’s career has been energy related. He has performed safety and quality roles from field supervision to office-based administration and management. Daniel’s consulting business has worked with organizations offering engineering services, restoration, pipeline, environmental, manufacturing and food service.

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