By: Chris Hall

Confined space entry is one of the most dangerous job tasks in most areas of industrial or construction employment.  These spaces, by definition, have: 1. Limited means of access and egress, 2. Not designed for continuous human occupancy, and 3. Are large enough to enter inside and perform work.  Confined spaces may also be divided into several sub-categories, most notably are Permit-Required and Non-Permit Required Confined Spaces.   As employees conduct work within these spaces, one area often overlooked is the ability to rescue a worker trapped inside the space. 

One of OSHA’s first steps to conducting confined space work should be to determine if the hazards with the space can be controlled or eliminated, thus allowing for Alternate Entry procedures or total reclassification of the space itself.  If this cannot be done and permit entry is required, then it would be necessary for the employer to ensure the requirement for timely rescue of workers is met. 
Confined space rescue can be broken down into three simple categories:  Non-entry Rescue, Rescue by Others (third-party), or Rescue by Trained Employees. 

Non-Entry Rescue is the act of having the attendant or another qualified person conduct a rescue of the trapped/injured employee without physically entering into the space or even breaking the plane of the space.  This usually will involve some form of active retrieval system such as a tripod and hand operated winch or rescue line.  These systems are most useful in areas where entry is from the top of the space and there is little risk of employees having the line twisted or wrapped around/through equipment components, around corners or utility pipes.  It is important to consider whether this type of system is adequate enough to meet the non-entry rescue requirements. 

Rescue by others, or a professional service, is another means of meeting the rescue requirement.  Confined spaces not suitable for non-entry rescue must be evaluated for specific hazards and a professional rescue service or local fire department rescue team selected to perform the rescue work.  Using a third-party rescue service is challenging because the employer must investigate the service in order to assess their capabilities, equipment, response time, and availability.  OSHA provides a non-mandatory appendix (1910.146 app F) as a guide to conducting such an evaluation of the services.  One other important step is making sure the outside rescue service is familiar with the facility and types of spaces (and hazards) located within it.  This helps to cut down on the response time because rescue will take place in a “known” area, and less time will be spent mapping and deciding the best way to perform the rescue. In any circumstance, time is a factor, and the rescue service would need to be available in a time period adequate enough for the hazards present.

In recent times, many municipal fire departments have cut back or completely eliminated their confined space rescue teams due to budget cuts.  This removes the municipal rescue team as an option and has forced many companies to look towards a rescue services contractor or train their own rescue team.  Training your own team has its own challenges, especially for a smaller company with limited resources. 

To start, the rescue team must be selected by the employer based on ability and willingness to perform a rescue effort.  The company should provide some form of training class (most are 3-5 days long) conducted by a qualified company or by a qualified members of the staff.  There are a number of criteria which the course needs to follow in order to be considered adequate training for rescuers.  NFPA 1670 “Standards on Operations and Training for Technical Rescue Incidents” provides the most established guideline for confined space rescuers.  At least one, if not all of the rescuers must be CPR/First Aid trained.  The team also needs opportunities to practically apply its rescue techniques through drills and practicing rescue efforts. 

The rescue team also needs the equipment necessary to perform rescue based on the spaces and hazards present onsite.  This could mean purchasing expensive PPE (SCBA’s designated specifically for rescue efforts), stretchers, new tripods, communications and other retrieval equipment.   The rescue team will also need a written program to include communications (call for rescue), developing a rescue plan for the site hazards at the time of an incident, and overall function of the rescue team.  

Confined space rescue is one of the most overlooked aspects of OSHA’s standard for procedures.  Too often, companies rely on the belief or hope that situations do not escalate to the point of needing a rescue team or specialized services.   Each company performing work in confined spaces should regularly re-evaluate their programs and determine where updates or revisions are needed to bring them into compliance and what services are best suited to meet their needs.