Working in a confined space can have serious and even deadly consequences. Workers who enter manholes, utility tunnels, silos, holding tanks, and other spaces with limited entry or exit face this risk every day on the job.

Confined spaces with potential exposure to hazardous gases, low oxygen, electrical shock, risk of entrapment or engulfment, or other recognized hazards require a permit for entry. This permit is created by the employer, must be in writing, and helps identify and control the hazards within a confined space.

Confined space emergency

In a confined space emergency, the injured worker has often collapsed from being overcome by hazardous conditions. When breathing or heart function is compromised, you generally have a maximum of four minutes to save the injured worker.

Do you have an emergency response plan for your employees who work in confined spaces? Do your employees know what to do when a trapped coworker needs immediate help?

A quick emergency response is critical

It’s important to remember that rescue crews face the same dangerous conditions that overwhelm the worker. The time limitations add further stress. Knowing exactly what to do in a given situation is critical to the survival of the trapped worker.

Watch one employer’s confined space emergency response plan in action. In the video below, employees of RTE Welding in San Bernardino County conduct a rescue simulation exercise for when a welder becomes trapped and unconscious inside a tanker trailer that’s under repair.

What should my plan include?

Employers must have operating and rescue procedures in writing. When employees enter a potentially hazardous confined space, a trained attendant must be present to monitor for dangerous situations and activate the response plan when needed.  A trained emergency rescue team must also be ready to ensure a quick response. The team should include employees trained in CPR, first aid, and have appropriate emergency response and rescue equipment readily available. 

Plan the response with caution. In the video, no one had to enter the confined space to rescue the injured worker. A non-entry rescue is recommended whenever possible. But depending on the setup at your workplace, workers might have to enter the confined space to initiate a rescue. In these cases, they should never rush into a confined space without the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). This may include a self-contained breathing apparatus and a safety belt and line depending on the potential hazards in the space. Unprepared and untrained rescuers often become additional victims during a confined space emergency.

Practice your confined space response plan yearly to ensure that your rescue team can perform quickly enough to save the life of the injured worker. Remember to follow up any drill or emergency response by reviewing the actions taken by your employees. This helps you identify areas for improvement and also what went well.

Equally important as your response plan is to ensure that a proper hazard assessment is performed prior to entering confined spaces. Take action to eliminate or control potential hazards to reduce the risk of an emergency situation.

No one can predict when an emergency will occur at work. But with an effective response plan, practiced regularly, your employees will know their responsibilities. They’ll be able to execute them under the pressure of providing immediate aid to an injured coworker in dangerous conditions.    

Additional resources

The Silent Dangers of Confined Spaces

Cal/OSHA regulation for permit-required confined spaces

Cal/OSHA Confined Space Hazard Alert

Confined Space Guide for General Industry

The above evaluations and/or recommendations are for general guidance only and should not be relied upon for medical advice or legal compliance purposes. They are based solely on the information provided to us and relate only to those conditions specifically discussed. We do not make any warranty, expressed or implied, that your workplace is safe or healthful or that it complies with all laws, regulations or standards.