Unexpected Hazards – A Confined Space Lesson

“IT showed something bad. . . . Come check this thing out, it showed something!” were the gasping utterances of a dirty, sweat-streaked, very excited (and obviously frightened) maintenance fellow.

The multi-gas monitor, after months of use, had sounded an alarm that startled the crew while working in a tunnel.

The guys thought it was broken when the alarm went off, until the meaning of the alarm hit home and they scampered up to safety.

At first glance, the safety officer thought, “This is what is supposed to happen: The monitor worked.”

The reality of the situation was much worse for a fledgling safety program dealing with a new confined space requirement.

Upon closer investigation, it was determined this crew, who had been trained and had all the tools, often did not test the atmosphere because nothing had ever been found.

Several (including the supervisor) routinely worked in confined spaces they believed safe with no thought of any hazard, other than being late for break time because they had always done it that way.

These well-trained individuals saw Confined Space as a time drag, another useless program that made them sit half-awake through classes and use or have present additional equipment that strapped the budget for other needed equipment. There was little benefit to the guys doing the work.

Until that little alarm went off. . . . That day, it was hydrogen sulfide. Repeated testing verified the results. At that facility, it was the only time anyone remembered “finding” anything wrong with a confined space.

I learned more about the confined space program that day than any other day from listening carefully to the comments of the employees.

“We weren’t sure the thing even worked,” one said. “We dropped it several times last month but did not tell anyone.” And there was the second-level supervisor who wanted to argue the standard and procedure, until reminded he had sent his employees to the confined space training but had never bothered to attend himself. He was too busy.

Confined spaces and the need for ventilation and testing took on a whole new meaning for that crew. Budget for better equipment materialized without a grumble from the highest management.

They purchased equipment safety professionals only dream about.

I had forgotten this event until recently being stopped at a local market by a creaky, little man who was one of those now-long-retired maintenance employees.

He remembered it clearly and as a life-changing moment because it was his life at risk. His attitude about safety was forever changed that day.

As leaders, we do make an impact every day. We may not know it at the time (or ever), but our actions, statements, and work ethics touch positively the lives of those we serve.

We can effect change to help employees help themselves one standard at a time and return home safely.

There is nothing simple here; each entry is completely different.

There is no history to rely on, every entry is unique and must be treated as extremely hazardous, and therein comes one of a multitude of problems.

Often employees become complacent over time when there are no hazards noted. Much of confined space prevention is potential, a series of “what if” situations.

Often, maintenance employees believe themselves to be 10 feet tall and bulletproof each and every day.

The entry permit is pencil whipped without thought and approved from afar, or not completed at all and not followed up on.

Employees who test the atmosphere and find no problems repeatedly become lax and begin skipping tests to save time or effort.

Some employees have no idea what an “alarm” sounds or looks like on monitors.

Employees brace themselves for the dangers of asphyxiation, toxic gases and vapors, mold, blood borne pathogens, heat stress, engulfment, falls–yet this entry is uneventful, so the worry and extra manpower is seen as an unnecessary cost and worry.

Stress is high, readiness is in place, and then nothing happens “out of the ordinary.” It all becomes a let-down.

Such a situation without added reinforcement of training—and unfortunately, real deaths and injuries in the type of work being done–becomes a “cry wolf” standard of enforcement.

Sadly, many of the best confined space programs are built on a workplace fatality or severe injury.

Employees often have the tools to use: monitors and retrieval and communication elements to protect each employee entering the confined space. Training is often up to date.

Yet just as often, these same employees do not bother testing the atmosphere or utilizing any of the equipment unless management is around.

The respect for potential hazards just is not present.

Whether we work in confined spaces, at heights or any other environment, it is imperative that we follow safety procedures all the time.

We must not think that because nothing has ever happened that nothing will ever happen as far as accidents are concerned.

We must value any information given and training opportunities afforded to ensure that we complete tasks safely every day.

Thanks for the share, TO!