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Confined Space:
Have We Learned Our Lesson Yet?


By Michael Halliwell

More items for Health & Safety

I don’t think we go more than a week between articles about injuries or fatalities involving confined spaces.

One moment, it is a report of a recalcitrant employer sending employees into a trench without proper training, safety equipment or permit system in place.

The next, it is an explosion and fire because someone was using a volatile solvent and non-intrinsically safe equipment in a tank.

Confined Space

Confined spaces could have or develop a hazardous atmosphere, or have the potential for engulfment or entrapment.

And then we get the fatalities because something went wrong. It's tragic, especially in this day and age.

Different Names, Same Dangers

Even though some jurisdictions have “restricted spaces” and “confined spaces” whilst others have “non-permit required” and “permit required” confined spaces, the basics are the same.

The former are not meant for workers to be there, but are generally fairly safe. The latter, on the other hand, could have or develop a hazardous atmosphere, or have the potential for engulfment or entrapment. They may have sloping floors that could cause asphyxiation, unguarded wires or machinery, high heat—things that can make an already bad situation worse.

So why are so many of our fellow employees getting themselves into confined-space issues?


As many of you know, I work more on the environmental side of things, but I recently found myself in the position of setting up a confined-space entry permit for some sampling.

Confined Space

Even with folks who should know better, there remains far too much ignorance and/or complacency out there about the potential dangers of confined spaces.

I approached the Prime Contractor on the site to see what I would need to do to satisfy its confined-space permit program to get down into a 4 m (13-foot) deep excavation for sampling.

One side of the excavation had a vertical concrete wall (a former foundation). The other was vertically cut soil, and we were dealing with some hydrocarbon contamination.

In my mind, this was pretty clearly a permit-required confined space:  The excavation was not intended for human habitation, and there were limited ways in and out, as well as potential for entrapment/engulfment and for contaminated air.

The response to my question was pretty much “do whatever you usually do.”

Eye Opener

I was, frankly, flabbergasted that anyone from a company of the size of the Prime Contractor—who also deals with hazardous waste, has a 40-year history, and prides itself on both its knowledge of safety regulations and its safety program—would have such a flippant attitude toward a confined-space entry.

I was not amused.


A confined-space permit plan should spell out the appropriate gear and staffing, testing and monitoring, and a detailed Emergency Response Plan.

So, I set things up properly: After going through and assessing the expected and potential hazards, I generated a confined-space entry permit for the site, brought in the appropriate gear to safely do air testing and monitoring, and developed a several-stage Emergency Response Plan (from use of lifelines right through to emergency rescue).

Then, I got ready to get the contractor-supplied man-watch up to speed on the plan.

Well, that was another eye-opener!

'What's With All This Stuff?'

The provided individual was in a fairly senior position (foreman level) and had his confined-space ticket, but when I started bringing out the equipment I was essentially asked: “So what’s with all this stuff? You’re just grabbing some samples, right?”

Fortunately, the actual entry, sampling and egress went well. We got the samples we needed and the information to keep the job moving.


The details differ, but few weeks go by without a death or serious accident in a confined space.

Unfortunately, it also exposed how even with folks who should know better, there remains far too much ignorance and/or complacency out there—intentional or not—about the potential dangers of confined spaces.

Get It Yet?

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the need to look out for ourselves and our fellow employees.

It means that regardless of whether you’re working for a small town, local firm or international corporation, your safety may not be the most important thing, either by choice or by ignorance.

It’s great that there are some employers who "get it” and, in spite of how onerous it seems sometimes, want to make sure that every employee goes home safely every day.

But we all need to watch out for the other guys for whom safety, including confined-space safety, is not high on the priorities list.

It’s a big, dangerous world of little spaces out there.


Michael Halliwell

Michael Halliwell, M.Eng., CESA, EP, P.Eng., is an Associate and Environmental Engineer for Thurber Engineering Ltd. in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. During his 17-plus years with the company, he has been involved with environmental site assessment, remediation, construction inspection and supervision, and project management. He also performs hazardous building material assessments for asbestos and lead paint.



Tagged categories: Accidents; Confined space; Health and safety; Manholes; Tanks and vessels

Comment from Will Fultz, (8/15/2014, 10:30 AM)

Excellent article.

Comment from Thomas Murphy, (8/18/2014, 8:40 AM)

As a frequent confined-space entrant, it is a constant concern when dealing with supervisors who are more focused on production and profit margins. The risks in confined-space work are obvious and no shortcuts or deviations are acceptable. Workers are forced to "hold the line" in the face of complacency.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (8/18/2014, 12:31 PM)

Will, thank you for the compliment. Thomas, It's too bad that the almighty dollar has taken such a high precedence...even above human life. Hopefully, with the right people doing the right things, we can at least make a dent. It would be nice if the regulators "had our back" on occasion too....a few more criminal charges might get supervisors' and managers' attention.

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