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The Guardian Fall Team Blog

A Confined Space rescue shares many components with its open-air counterpart. But given the unique nature of Confined Space work, there are also some special considerations to be aware of that deserve a little extra attention.


Rescues Need An Attendant

A Confined Space rescue is an often complex ordeal, with many individually moving parts that need to be coordinated and synchronized like a fine watch. Like the proverbial gears of a watch, if any one gear gets out of time, it throws the whole works into chaos. Enter the Attendant.

An Attendant is to a rescue as a conductor is to the symphony. They ensure that each piece of the rescue is in sync with every other part, and that things happen at just the right time. An Attendant is not a direct participant in the rescue (in point of fact he must remain outside of the Confined Space), rather he is one constantly monitoring every other worker who is involved in the rescue. The Attendant also monitors atmospheric conditions of the space itself, and must remain in constant contact with the entrants (remember, in many rescues, direct eye, or voice communication is not possible) to ensure their status. If the Attendant perceives any rescuer is putting themselves in danger, he removes the entrant from the operation, and replaces them with another entrant. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the Attendant must perform “…no duties that might interfere with the attendant’s primary duty to assess and protect the authorized entrants.” In other words, the Attendant’s main objective and duty is the proper coordination of the rescue itself, not to jump in and do the work himself. There is an old saying in aviation that during an emergency, the most important job of the pilot is to fly the plane. It sounds simple, but in the midst of an emergency, it’s all too easy to be distracted by the flurry of ancillary events and lose focus on the primary job. Make sure the Attendant is well-trained and up for the task – lives depend on it. 

 Atmospheric Conditions

One of the more complex (as if Confined Space activities weren’t complicated enough) factors in a Confined Space rescue is the maintenance of safe atmospheric conditions. In permit-required Confined Space operations, there exists the potential for hazardous atmospheric conditions, be they fumes, flammable gasses, or the lack of oxygen due to the presence of other gasses – even inert gasses such as nitrogen – that may debilitate workers or rescuers. Protocol calls for air quality to be continually monitored for safety, and fumes properly vented to maintain proper oxygen levels.

How important is maintaining safe atmospheric conditions? OSHA states that “…most confined space deaths and injuries are caused by atmospheric hazards (1).” And to compound the issue, “…where multiple deaths occurred, the majority of the victims in each event died trying to rescue the original entrant from a confined space.” Let that sink in for a minute. When there are multiple deaths in a Confined Space incident, the majority of those deaths are rescuers. And those deaths were not from direct trauma, but as a result of toxic atmospheric conditions encountered while trying to effect a rescue. There is some nuance in that statement that needs explaining though. In these cases, the rescuers were “untrained or poorly trained;” they were not fully-trained experts outfitted with proper rescue gear, which may include SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus). In many instances, the would-be rescuers were simply other workers (or in one case, family members) who tried to extract the victim from the confined space but were overcome by fumes. These events are not uncommon, and their results are tragic.

You have to think outside of the box when considering atmospheric risks in confined spaces because one type of hazard can quickly become another. Here’s an example: The average atmospheric oxygen level is about 20.9%. If an inert gas, say nitrogen, were introduced to a confined space and the oxygen level dropped below about 16%, you would enter an oxygen-depleted situation. If the oxygen level continued to drop, you would begin experiencing the effects of hypoxia including accelerated heartbeat, nausea, poor coordination, poor judgement and fatigue. Once the oxygen level dropped below 10% you’d likely be unconscious within minutes.

Now, turn the oxygen level around. If the oxygen level rose above 23.5%, the space would be considered oxygen rich. Under those conditions, you would not experience any of the effects of the oxygen-depleted situation, but does that mean you are out of the woods? Nope. When atmospheric oxygen reaches 23.5%, it has the potential to become unstable and the risk of combustion increases exponentially as it continues to increase. In a nutshell, when altering a single factor (oxygen level) you move from one problem of unconsciousness and loss of motor skills, to one of combustion. Those are very different problems with very different solutions, but unless you are constantly monitoring the confined space, you may walk into a situation prepared for one type of emergency, and wind up with something completely different.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of monitoring a confined space for atmospheric hazards at all times, even before a rescue. After all, many rescues are necessary because of a failure to provide a safe working atmosphere (literally) in a confined space in the first place.

 Specialized Equipment

Confined Space atmosphere monitoring leads us to consider the specialized equipment that is needed during a confined space rescue. As matter of fact, atmospheric monitoring/ventilation may be the single most important piece of equipment on a rescue. If (as OSHA states) atmospheric conditions are the most prevalent cause of Confined Space deaths, it follows that mitigating those hazards would be a major step in preventing the deaths in the first place. Even if a worker were injured and had to wait for hoisting equipment to arrive, removing the risk of asphyxiation by toxic fumes or lack of oxygen would be a big step in reducing overall deaths.

Although too numerous to mention in their entirety, there are many styles of monitors available to the confined space worker. These monitors range from single-gas for oxygen deficiency to multiple-gas for oxygen, combustible, and toxic gasses. As usual, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, so knowing which style of monitor is best for your jobsite is crucial.
Hand-in-hand with confined space monitoring is ventilation equipment. The very nature of a confined space operation means that airflow will somehow be restricted or otherwise compromised. But what type of ventilation system will you need? There are essentially three types of ventilation systems: forced supply, forced exhaust, and forced supply and exhaust. Depending on your specific situation, one type of ventilation is likely preferred over another, but of course that depends on what your atmospheric monitoring equipment tells you. For example, it is possible to make a non-volatile atmosphere volatile by the introduction of forced air into a space and changing the oxygen saturation levels.

Alongside atmospheric monitoring and ventilation (see the pattern here?) is respiratory protection. Unlike ventilation systems, which are designed to remedy dangerous ambient air conditions in a confined space, respiratory systems are worn by the rescuer (or the victim) in atmospheric conditions that contain sufficient breathable oxygen, but are still potentially dangerous, and unable to be properly vented in a timely manner.  These can range from a self-contained breathing apparatus, to supplied-air type (air supplied via a constantly-connected hose), to purifying (filters airborne contaminant from breathable air), to escape respirators which are used only during exiting and have a limited supply of air.

Other types of required equipment that are not necessarily unique to confined space operations are: protective clothing (including eye, hearing, head, and hand protection); communications equipment (dark, remote conditions may make voice/sight communication impossible); and of course lowering/lifting equipment (such as davits, tripods, winches, harnesses, etc.). Each confined space situation will determine which suite of tools is necessary, but it’s important to consider all of the potentialities of a rescue operation – the old Boy Scout motto applies in spades here…


Specialized Training

It should be pretty clear by now that Confined Space work is not your average type of operation. It requires plenty of forethought, specialized gear, careful execution, and when things go wrong, an extra level of attention to detail to ensure the safe rescue of workers. And as you can probably guess, it also requires specialized training to properly plan and manage these difficult operations. Luckily for you, Guardian offers three different F.I.R.S.T. Choice training classes to suit your needs.

Confined Space Awareness – An overview of Confined Space operations including personnel requirements and duties, Confined Space assessment, atmospheric monitoring and lock out/tag out procedures.

Confined Space Entry Rescue – Includes techniques for moving victims horizontally/vertically; improvised anchor points, retrieval lines; use of entry permits and respiratory protection.

Confined Space Non-Entry Rescue – An overview of Confined Space operations plus training with manufactured anchor points such as tripods and davits. Also includes training on atmospheric monitoring and ventilation procedures for non-entry rescue.

For more information on our Confined Space training classes, click here to go to our F.I.R.S.T. Choice Training page.