As often happens, recent events inspired my topic for this month’s Safety 365. A friend called to ask what his company needed to do for confined space training. His company routinely enters pump houses and tanks in the course of day-to-day activities. After assuring him that his upcoming training would cover all the pertinent topics, I began to think about how many other drillers out there who believe they do things correctly but could use a little brush-up in the hazards and mitigations of working in confined spaces.

Recently on social media, I saw a post showing someone going down a hand dug well with no type of fall or rescue protection. Having seen that, I can’t say it surprises me that, on average, two workers die every week in the U.S. in accidents related to confined spaces. Maybe we all need a little better understanding of the risks.

First, a little background on confined space fatalities. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Publication Number 94-103, “Worker Deaths in Confined Spaces,” has stats for contractors to consider. From 1983-1993, the survey identified 585 fatal incidents resulting in the deaths of 670 workers. We’re talking about tanks, vats/pits, digesters and sewer manholes — all frequently involved in confined space incidences. About 80% of fatal incidences involved hazardous atmospheres, of which 43% were oxygen deficient. (Other causes of hazardous atmosphere deaths included hydrogen sulfide, methane, inert gases and carbon monoxide.) Of the victims, 40% were attempting to rescue another person trapped or incapacitated.

Looking at overall fatal incidences, in 40% of them workers had established, written safety procedures. Yet, only 6% of victims had received safety training specifically aimed at confined space entry. As you might imagine, the survey’s authors recommended companies implement a confined space program —  identification, hazard and task assessment, entry, rescue and monitoring procedure development — and then adequately train employees in that program. Recognition of the hazards and establishment of rescue protocols, the authors concluded, are the keys to worker safety in these environments.

Now, some of you may say, “Dave, these are old statistics you’re citing.” I agree. What do the latest statistics for confined spaces look like? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), from 2011 to 2018 1,030 workers died from occupational injuries involving confined spaces. That ranged from a low of 88 deaths in 2012 and a high of 148 deaths in 2018. Of these deaths, 60% were would-be rescuers. Comparing the older survey and the newer BLS statistics, our safety record has not gotten better since 1993, but the number of fatalities in confined spaces has nearly doubled.

So what is a confined space? It meets these three conditions:

  • Large enough that it can be entered by a worker.
  • Have limited means of access and egress.
  • Is not designed for continuous human occupancy.

Beyond that, if the space itself contains some sort of engulfment hazard, floor or shape that could trap a worker, that chance of engulfment or energy must be neutralized to a zero-energy state for work to safely continue. We call this special type a “permit required confined space” and workers must maintain specific protocols before entering and commencing work.

What if my pump house has a hatch or door? Is that still considered a confined space?

The short answer is, if an entrant's ability to escape in an emergency could be hindered the space may still meet the definition of a confined space. The dimensions of a door and its location are factors in determining whether an entrant can easily escape. However, the presence of a door does not mean that the space is not a confined space. In practice, most pump houses and almost all pits or tanks fit the definition of a confined space. Furthermore, the presence of high-voltage energy that must be isolated, locked and tagged out means these spaces would also fit the definition of a permit required confined space.

What should we do before entering a confined space? First, we recognize the different types of potential hazards in the confined space we intend to enter. Ask yourself some basic questions. Are there chemical hazards such as chlorine gases? Is there some sort of biological hazard, bacteria mold or some other possible pathogen? Are there physical hazards from rotating augers or shafts, or possible engulfment hazard? Is there an ergonomic hazard, a position that a worker must get in to do the work that would prohibit easy escape?

Once we recognize the possible hazards in the space we intend to enter, we have to institute a plan to control those hazards. For example, almost all confined spaces we enter in the water well industry will have some type of electrical hazards requiring mitigation. In most cases, this requires some sort of lockout/tagout mechanism to maintain the hazard in a zero-energy state. This could include blinding pipes, locking shafts or disconnecting electricity, as well as testing to confirm all energy that could be stored by capacitors has dissipated. Once these things have been done, they should be locked with the only key given to the entrant at risk while inside the confined space. If more than one person is a risk, each should have a lock on the hazard or hazards so no one can “liven” the system without all at-risk employees safely outside the space.

We’ve defined what we mean by confined spaces, gone over some stats to put in context the risk drillers and other workers face from them, and touched on mitigation of those risks. Hopefully, this helped you to evaluate your dealing with confined spaces. Next month, we’ll discuss the different roles of workers presented with confined space situations, and touch on types of rescues available in the case of an incident. Until then, keep turning to the right.

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More Information

Not sure if that space qualifies as “confined”? Need more information on correctly dealing with potential risks and exposures? Visit OSHA’s website at or seek additional training.