Working in a couple of confined spaces last year for the local utility company, I overheard others complaining about the extensive preparation that the work permits required. "We have reviewed the work authorized by this permit and the information contained here," read the one I signed every day. "Written instruction and safety procedures have been received and are understood." Knowing that entry to the work site could not be approved if any squares were marked in the "No" column made me realize the importance of the document, and all the requirements my employer had to meet just to get me to the job site.

There are risks that come with working in any job, but working in confined spaces is particularly dangerous. Workers in confined spaces must constantly keep a dual focus and maintain watch at all times for potential problems. They have to be aware not only of the job at hand and how it's progressing, but also of the actual space they occupy and the conditions under which they are working. These conditions can change quickly due to sudden shifts in weather, temperature, or other important factors. That's why it's crucial that anyone who works in confined spaces be fully trained to deal with the specific conditions the job requires (to find out more about training for confined spaces, see Working in Confined Spaces? You Need the Right Training).

What Is a Confined Space?

Anything with four walls can feel confining, but in the safety industry, a confined space is defined as one that has limited or restricted means for entry or exit (typically, the space is not designed for continuous employee occupancy, although there are some industry exceptions).

Confined spaces include, but are not limited to

  • Underground vaults
  • Tanks
  • Storage bins
  • Manholes
  • Pits
  • Silos
  • Pipelines

These spaces may have a hazardous atmosphere, but a confined space can also be any environment that contains a material that has the potential to engulf someone inside it, has walls that converge inward or floors that slope downward and taper into a smaller area that could trap or asphyxiate a worker, or contains any other recognized safety or health hazard like extreme heat or exposed live wires.

OSHA Requirements for Confined Spaces

OSHA’s Permit-Required Confined Space standard is intended to protect workers from toxic, explosive, or asphyxiating atmospheres; possible engulfment or entrapment; and other hazards. Under this standard, employers must:

  • Identify each permit-required confined space in their workplaces
  • Prevent unauthorized entry into permit-confined spaces
  • Protect authorized entrants from hazards through a permit space program

In particular, employees in the following industry segments need specialized training for best practices in working in confined spaces:

  • Building and Facility Construction
  • Road Construction
  • Manufacturing
  • Oil and Gas
  • Utilities

Preventing Confined Space Incidents

In order to keep valued employees safe, employers must:

  • Inform workers about the dangers of working in a confined space
  • Post highly visible signs around the space
  • Supply specific training for the work site
  • Secure and require necessary permits
  • Supply protective clothing and equipment
  • Conduct regular tests of the environment
  • Hold regular safety meetings
  • Prepare safety practices with a rescue plan in place

At the end of the day, keeping workers safe in any space, confined or otherwise, is a team effort. Safety is everyone's job.