Working in confined spaces during the pandemic adds a new dimension of risk to a high-stakes activity. These workers already face possible exposure to toxic substances, shock and electrocution, explosions, asphyxiation, and other hazards.
If something goes wrong, the consequences for these workers and their rescuers are often greater than in regular workspaces. An estimated 60% of fatalities involve would-be rescuers.
Throughout the pandemic, Chad Kavanaugh, WSPS' Specialized Services Lead (Confined Spaces), has been helping workplaces ensure confined space work proceeds safely. eNews reached out to Chad for some tips on what these workplaces need to know and do. But first, a study of confined space fatalities conducted by Quebec's Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et sécurité du travail (IRSST) can offer insight on where workplaces go wrong. These workplaces
- did a poor job of identifying hazards and estimating risks
- failed to perform a risk analysis in advance of the operation
- improvised rather than planned confined space operations
- did not ensure that workers followed a work procedure
- did not have rescue plans available
How you can prevent incidents in your workplace
Start with this guiding principle: you have to control the hazards before workers enter the confined space. Otherwise, it may be too late.
Chad offers these five suggestions for prepping your workplace:
- Identify all confined spaces. "Some workplaces may not realize they have confined spaces," says Chad. Here are examples of fully or partially enclosed spaces: vats, tanks, pits, grease traps, silos, and in-floor process pits.
- Understand what's required by law to maintain an effective confined space management program. Find out more in Ontario's confined spaces regulation (O. Reg. 632/05) and CSA Z1006:16 (R2020) Management of work in confined spaces, which has just been reaffirmed. Aim to exceed minimum requirements.
- Before workers enter a confined space, conduct a comprehensive risk assessment, taking into account the physical characteristics of the space (e.g. dimensions, location of entry and exit portals), actual and potential hazards (e.g. space contents; atmospheric conditions; physical, biological, ergonomic and psychosocial hazards), and rescue considerations, including external conditions or activities that may affect what's going on inside.
- Assign a "competent" person to conduct the assessment as defined by the Occupational Health and Safety Act - someone with the knowledge, skills and experience to do the work. If your workplace doesn't have a competent person on staff, bring in an outside expert.
- Plan the work and work the plan. "Don't rely on generic procedures," says Chad. "Instead, look at each space on a case-by-case basis. Practice entering, performing the work, exiting, and rescuing workers to ensure you have the work processes and equipment in place to complete the task safely." If something were to go wrong, would you be able to rescue workers swiftly?
Add these COVID-19 considerations to your preparations
Take COVID-19 precautions into account when conducting the hazard assessment and planning the work. For example:
- Assess workers' health before they enter the space (e.g. temperature test, self-assessment, rapid COVID-19 test if available).
- Minimize the number of workers in the space so long as the work can be performed safely.
- Increase ventilation if appropriate.
- Implement ways to maintain physical distancing if atmospheric conditions do not call for respiratory protection; if possible, mark off 2-metre work spaces and employ a one-way traffic system.
- If physical distancing is not possible, ensure workers wear masks or face coverings; provide eyewear to protect against aerosols.
- Avoid sharing equipment, especially PPE. Deep clean any respiratory protection equipment before reuse.
- Disinfect tools and equipment after the work has finished. Refer to Health Canada's list of approved disinfectants. Warning: 3M cautions against using disinfectants on porous, synthetic components of fall-arrest equipment.
How WSPS can help
WSPS experts like Chad Kavanaugh are available to audit your confined space program, conduct confined space assessments and entry and rescue planning, deliver training, and much more. Contact the WSPS duty consultants at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-877-494-WSPS.
Check out these confined space eCourses:
1. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
2. Development of a Confined Space Risk Analysis and Work Categorization Tool, IRSST, p. 30
3. In its warning, 3M states that "many webbing and stitching elements are extremely porous and when exposed to chemicals found in many disinfectants may degrade and ultimately affect the product's original design and strength requirements." Instead, 3M offers alternative cleaning guidelines.