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Workers who enter confined spaces face numerous hazards that pose significant risks to their health and safety. Therefore, employers must establish a comprehensive confined space program to address these risks and protect workers. Failure to do so could lead to physical harm to employees and potential liability for the organization. In this article, we’ll explore the key aspects of a confined space program, including its definition, essential components, and associated liability.
Many workplaces have areas categorized as confined spaces because they were not designed for human occupancy but are spacious enough for workers to enter and perform specific tasks. These areas have restricted or limited means of entry or exit and are not intended for continuous occupancy. Some examples of confined spaces may include tanks and vessels used in the chemical or petroleum industry or silos and bins used in agriculture or food processing.
OSHA defines a confined space as a “permit-required confined space” or “permit space” if it displays specific characteristics, such as the presence or potential for a hazardous atmosphere, containing materials that could engulf an entrant, walls that converge inward or floors that slope downward and could trap or suffocate an entrant, or containing safety or health hazards like unguarded machinery, exposed live wires, or heat stress.
An example of a permit-required confined space could be an underground utility vault. These spaces often contain electrical equipment and may have limited entry and exit points. They also have the potential for hazardous atmospheres, such as toxic gasses, and the potential for engulfment if they contain loose materials.
A confined space program refers to a series of procedures and practices designed to ensure worker safety when working in confined spaces. According to OSHA, if an employer allows workers to access confined spaces, they must establish and execute a written program for that particular space.
Confined spaces are full of hazards, such as poor air quality, engulfment, and electrical hazards. By implementing a program, employers can ensure that workers are informed of these risks and equipped with the necessary training and gear to work safely.
In addition to preventing accidents and fatalities, a confined space program assists employers in complying with OSHA regulations. Employers who ignore these regulations could face substantial fines and penalties.
A confined space program must include measures to prevent unauthorized entry, identification and assessment of potential hazards, testing of atmospheric conditions, and procedures to control or eliminate any risks.
The program must also specify job duties, provide the necessary equipment, station an attendant outside the space, coordinate with other employers, establish rescue procedures, and create a system for entry permits.
A confined space program consists of the following essential parts:
Identification of Confined Spaces: Employers must identify all confined spaces within their workplace and ensure workers know their locations.
Entry Procedures: Employers must establish procedures for workers to follow when entering and exiting confined spaces. These procedures include testing the area’s air quality, evaluating potential hazards, and ensuring that workers have the necessary training and equipment.
Training: Employers must provide workers with the necessary training to safely enter and work in confined spaces. Training includes the hazards associated with confined spaces, the use of personal protective equipment, and the proper use of equipment used to enter and exit confined spaces.
Rescue Procedures: Employers must establish rescue procedures for an emergency. These procedures should include steps for notifying emergency responders, identifying the location of the confined space, and providing the necessary equipment and personnel to conduct a rescue.
Permit System: Establish a permit system to ensure that all confined space entries are authorized, the entry conditions have been assessed, and proper precautions have been taken.
Communication Procedures: Employers must establish procedures for communication between workers inside and outside the confined space and procedures for notifying other workers of the confined space entry.
Review and Evaluation: Employers must review their confined space program regularly to ensure that it remains effective and up-to-date. Procedures should also be in place to reevaluate confined spaces as needed.
Implementing a confined space program is an essential step in ensuring the safety of workers who enter confined spaces. However, employers need to understand that there is liability associated with implementing such a program.
Under OSHA regulations, employers are responsible for providing a safe working environment for their employees, including implementing a confined space program for workers who are required to enter confined spaces as part of their job duties. Employers who fail to comply with OSHA regulations related to confined spaces may be held liable for any accidents or injuries resulting from noncompliance.
In addition to OSHA regulations, employers may be held liable under state and federal laws. For example, if an employee is injured or killed while working in a confined space, the employer may be sued for negligence. In such cases, the employer may pay damages to the injured party or their family.
Liability can also extend to contractors who work in confined spaces. Employers who hire contractors to perform work in confined spaces must ensure that the contractors are aware of the hazards associated with the space and have the necessary training and equipment to work safely. If a contractor is injured while working in a confined space, the employer may be liable for any damages.
Employers should ensure that the program is comprehensive and up-to-date to minimize liability associated with a confined space program. This includes identifying all confined spaces within the workplace, providing the necessary training and equipment to workers, and establishing rescue procedures in the event of an emergency.
Confined spaces create dangerous situations, not just for the entrants but also for the organizations that authorize them. Therefore, employers must be mindful of the risks and liability associated with confined space entry. To minimize harm, employers must maintain a comprehensive and up-to-date program that provides workers with the necessary training and equipment.
We encourage all employers to review their existing confined space program or create one to safeguard their workers’ well-being. Education is one of the best tools in the fight against workplace incidents. To better understand confined space entry and protect your employees, we recommend reading part two of this three-part series on confined space entry.
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