The Confined Spaces Regulations 1997 define a confined space as: ‘any place, including any chamber, tank, vat, silo, pit, trench, pipe, sewer, flue, well or other similar space in which, by virtue of its enclosed nature, there arises a reasonably foreseeable specified risk’. Confined space accidents are frequently fatal usually involving several employees being killed, often as a result of inadequately trained or equipped staff attempting a rescue without realising the dangers.
Staff who may enter confined spaces or who need to be aware of the dangers must be individually identified, informed and instructed about the potential hazards and trained in the relevant safe system of work, safety equipment and rescue arrangements.
Safety equipment will generally include gas monitors, access and rescue equipment and breathing apparatus and in some cases powered portable ventilation. A Permit to Work system, to control the work, is normally adopted.
All training will need to be regularly refreshed and training records kept.
The main areas of health and safety law relevant to confined spaces are:
A suitable and sufficient risk assessment must be undertaken before any confined space work commences and this should be undertaken by a competent person who has received detailed training on how to assess confined space hazards and identify specific precautions.
In July 2015 a manager at a fruit farm was jailed for two and a half years following the deaths of two members of staff in a sealed warehouse storing apples at 1% oxygen, a level which would not support life. The manager had introduced a procedure for staff entering through a hatch in the roof of the warehouse and holding their breath to select samples of apples for a competition. Two of the staff members, aged 23 and 24 died whilst undertaking this practice in February 2013. The Company, Blackmoor Estates, was prosecuted and fined £75,000 with £30,000 costs for an offence under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.
A company was fined £533,000 and ordered to pay costs of £200,000 in July 2009 following two deaths at a manufacturing plant.
The court heard that the company’s Works Manager and Maintenance Engineer were found collapsed on the stairs leading to a concrete-lined pit into which argon gas had leaked from a large pressure vessel. The pit’s oxygen alarm system was switched off and the ventilation system was not running.
On the day of the incident, the ventilation system, which could have removed the leaking argon before it became a problem, and the oxygen alarm system, which would have warned of the oxygen-depleted atmosphere, were not switched on.
By James Murphy