According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), around 2.1 million workers enter permit-required confined spaces annually in the United States. In addition, the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) reports that from 2011 to 2018, there were 1,030 worker fatalities involving a confined space. Of these fatalities, 60% were confined space rescuers, while instances of multiple fatalities occur most commonly among “would be” rescuers, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Collectively, these figures highlight the high-risk nature of confined space work, especially for those responding to emergencies. Unfortunately, not every company has the resources to prepare for such emergencies adequately. Whether it’s a lack of worker training, preparedness, or funding, confined space assessment and rescue plans can sometimes lack the resources necessary to manage risk. As a result, some companies may not be doing enough to keep workers safe nor compliant with local legislation. However, no matter where companies stand with their safety initiatives, establishing a confined space rescue protocol can be time-consuming and costly.
Although the term “confined space” is widely known, the exact definition isn’t always straightforward. To eliminate this ambiguity, OSHA has developed standards for confined spaces across the construction industry. According to these standards (29 CFR 1926 Subpart AA), confined space is:
The standard also requires that every employer develop and implement a confined space rescue plan that outlines emergency procedures. If an employer plans to access local emergency services for this purpose, they must also meet requirements outlined in section 1926.1211 of the OSHA standard. This section acknowledges that companies and local emergency services may lack training in confined space rescue. However, employers must exercise due diligence when assessing confined space risk to address potential shortcomings.
Establishing a dedicated confined space rescue team is one approach companies can take to better prepare for emergencies and remain compliant. When forming these teams, employers must ensure that rescue training is tailored to each unique confined space. In doing so, companies can ensure that their training meets Curriculum Standards set by governing bodies such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), OSHA, and others. Employers can begin to establish a responsive, well-practiced confined space team by building site-specific scenarios into their emergency preparedness initiatives. The pre-planning keeps rescuers and workers safe as all parties can more readily identify potential hazards. Although maintaining a dedicated confined space rescue team will look different for every company, certain aspects are universal:
When these maintenance activities occur in tandem, companies can ensure that their confined space rescue teams are ready for any emergency. However, this process can be time-consuming and costly for some small and medium-sized companies. In addition, although a rescue team is crucial, workers are often responsible for fulfilling more than one role due to such emergencies’ infrequent nature. As a result, emergency preparedness may suffer alongside training as day-to-day operations take precedence.
To prevent the above challenges and remain compliant with OSHA standards, some companies elect to hire external confined space rescue contractors like SITEX. In doing so, employers can prioritize their commitment to planning for confined space emergencies. However, in selecting a prospective emergency responder, companies should also ensure that it has:
By hiring a dedicated confined space rescue contractor, employers can ensure that service workers are familiar with each permit-required confined space. This familiarity can improve emergency response times by cataloging information such as access routes, detailed site plans, and GPS coordinates. Beyond these benefits, employers can automate crucial emergency responder site updates and joint training exercises with on-site employees.
Those who choose to engage a confined space rescue contractor like SITEX gain access to a dedicated team of professionals on demand. Instead of establishing an internal team, companies can engage providers like SITEX to deliver confined space assessment and rescue services, freeing valuable resources. From confined space database management systems to confined space attendants, such contractors provide what companies need when they need it. In some cases, contractors can also supplement existing on-site services, further reducing costs compared to in-house contract workers. In addition to lowering costs and streamlining operations, contractors ensure workers receive training under the OSHA curriculum, ensuring ongoing compliance.
Given the inherent risks of confined space work, effective rescue services are essential to work safety. By engaging a provider like SITEX, companies can build flexibility into their EHS culture while prioritizing operational efficiency.