There are many aspects to emergency operations in regard of what equipment and what techniques or systems of work can be employed at incidents involving confined spaces. However, it is important to fully understand the meaning of ‘confined space’ when it comes to emergency operations. To not do so can result in actions not being taken that could result in a lower level of safety for personnel and casualties and in possible legal action against your department were there to be a situation generating an investigation by regulatory authorities. This would be most relevant at either extended operations where there is time to put in place all appropriate control measures or at incidents where there is no immediate life risk.
Conversely, trying to comply with legislation where it is not required can hugely delay rescue operations with obvious and equally serious consequences.
It is therefore paramount for emergency services to examine regulatory documents that affect their operations to produce their own internal policies, procedures, work systems, equipment and training that demonstrate the organisation has assessed the impact on their activities and personnel and reacted to ensure they are in compliance. This provision must be balanced to reflect the fact that, generally, the only reason fire fighters would enter a confined space would be in an attempt to rescue a casualty or for some reason that would prevent a far worse situation developing. Consideration must also be given to the fact that many systems designed for industry may not be suitable for a fire and rescue service (FRS) response as there is not the time to produce detailed risk assessments, emergency plans and permits to work that would be required for non-emergency work. Fairly obviously, until a call is received, FRS personnel will not even know the location at which they will be working let alone any of the other vital information that would be available to industrial teams prior to any work being considered.
From a FRS perspective, it is important to remember that the confined space regulations are not just for emergency operations. There is a vast amount of work undertaken in confined spaces for industrial or commercial purposes – certainly far more than the emergency services would ever get involved with. The regulations and associated good practice give a structure to how that work should be considered and the necessary arrangements that should be put in place if work in confined spaces is to take place.
FRS should plan to comply with any applicable legislation and this should be reflected in their policies, procedures and training. However, in emergency situations where lives may depend on the actions of FRS personnel there is also a need to understand how risk assessment can and should affect the activities of emergency personnel. To be able to make any operational decision that might not be legally compliant in ‘normal’ working conditions, personnel must fully understand the regulations in question.
Most legislative documents can be extremely hard to decipher into plain language. This can be so difficult that, in certain cases, better understanding is not achieved until specific incidents have been fully examined, investigated and dragged through a protracted legal process that results in ‘case law’ setting precedent. Much of this type of legislation is generally accompanied by various documents such as ‘codes of practice’ and independent interpretation by sector experts and industry. The production of these associated guides is generally delayed until examples of practice have been identified; either by the above cited production of precedent or by the accumulated experiences of many agencies via local or national networks. However, elements of this guidance can be biased in ways that will suit the particular organisation producing that interpretation. Consequently, this process can produce working examples of either bad or good practice that can be used as benchmarks in the standards of operations that should be employed for these activities.
It is also important to consider that some activities that have become recognised as good practice at incidents involving confined spaces, whilst not necessarily legally required, should be undertaken wherever possible as they will make difficult scenarios easier to manage. This could include the use of items such as gas monitors, ventilation systems or ‘working at height’ equipment. Additionally, many systems that are employed during operations involving confined spaces can also be utilised at other types of incident. Again, whilst they may not be legally required, their use can make otherwise difficult situations far easier to deal with.
So, returning to the title of this article, the first thing to consider at an incident of this type is whether the situation you have is actually a confined space or not. In the UK, the Confined Spaces Regulations 1997 (CSR) are quite specific about what constitutes a confined space. Whilst this is not the place to regurgitate legislation, some detail from the regulations will assist to show how confusion can be created when trying to interpret the regulations and show how preconceptions will only add to that confusion.
The CSR 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”
This therefore means there is a need to understand what a specified risk is, to know whether or not a confined space is present. The same regulations define a specified risk as; risk of:
a. serious injury to any person at work arising from a fire or explosion;
b. without prejudice to paragraph (a) –
i. the loss of consciousness of any person at work arising from an increase in body temperature;
ii. the loss of consciousness or asphyxiation of any person at work arising from gas, fume, vapour or the lack of oxygen;
c. the drowning of any person at work arising from an increase in the level of a liquid;
d. the asphyxiation of any person at work arising from a free flowing solid or the inability to reach a respirable environment due to entrapment by a free flowing solid.
Furthermore, as would be appreciated by the reading of these regulations, there is no reference to restricted or difficult access or complex configurations of premises which are, very likely, the most common preconceptions that exist when considering confined spaces.
Many of the risks that are considered most likely to be contributory to problems during emergency operations are not considered at all in the regulations. This is because the regulations only consider those hazards directly associated with confined spaces. The long list of additional problems that arise when entering confined spaces in an emergency are issues that should already have been considered; not only for incidents involving confined spaces, but also for many other types of emergency scenario. The requirement for the consideration of these issues is generally covered by other regulations.
The latest UK guidance document for working in confined spaces was released in January 2013 which gives good direction on how to comply with the CSR and provides much more detail on procedures and equipment than has previously been available. It has taken almost 17 years to get to this point and the information provides answers to many questions and clears up much confusion that has been identified during that period.
There still remain many differences in the manner with which incidents involving confined spaces are dealt with and whether certain types of incident should even be considered as involving confined spaces. For example; the CSR detail that the risk of injury due to fire or the loss of consciousness of any person at work, arising from an increase in body temperature would constitute that area being a confined space. Therefore, this would mean that every fire a FRS responds to is a confined space. Whilst that is correct, FRS will be satisfied that the control measures and emergency plans that are put in place at these incidents are appropriate for the identified risk.
However, what if that fire was to be on a ship, in a small compartment that had challenging access down several decks? In normal conditions this compartment could be in regular use and in no way be considered a confined space. However, there is no doubt that the degrading of conditions generates risk that would, under the regulations, constitute this as a confined space. What would FRS put in place as the rescue provision for the crews committed to that space?
A part of most rescue systems for confined space entry is ensuring that personnel committed into the space are wearing a harness. Use of harnesses and associated equipment could be seen as a crossover from other areas of work, however the wearing of a harness makes the rescue of personnel significantly easier to achieve than would otherwise be the case. How many FRS include the wearing of a harness in their procedures for firefighting in ships? How many have even considered it?
Admittedly, whilst the CSR do require provision for emergencies they do not specifically require a harness for personnel entering confined spaces although their use is referred to in the latest guidance for safe working in confined spaces. Importantly, any rescue provision has to be workable as just by having more personnel available and ready to enter does not, on its own, constitute a viable solution. The example of having personnel wear a harness is one that has developed over time due to it being shown to provide many benefits that support a safer system of work.
Fully understanding the legislation that industry should comply with will:
- Ensure that fire and rescue service personnel have safe systems of work and appropriate equipment and training
- Give some indication as to the work systems, types of equipment and levels of training that should be encountered when responding to emergencies
- Allow informed dynamic risk assessment to adapt procedure during emergency operations
- Remove the need for unnecessary delaying actions at incidents
- Allow the continuing development of emergency response to incidents involving confined spaces
However, full compliance with specific legislation is often not enough as so many of these regulations overlap when it comes to responding to emergency situations. It is therefore highly likely that where there is a need to comply with confined space regulations there will also be a requirement to comply with legislation regarding safe working at height and working with hazardous materials. This is just two additional areas of work where there is an obvious and commonly encountered overlap.
Ultimately, if, along with an understanding of relevant regulations, there has been a risk driven examination of the incidents that FRS personnel could foreseeably respond to with the development of appropriate policy, procedure, equipment and training to support that response, it is likely that compliance with legislation will be achieved.
In future articles we will undertake a more specific examination of various techniques and equipment that can be utilised at incidents involving confined spaces. Some will be needed to comply with regulation; others may not be legally required but will, most certainly, be good practice and in many cases applicable to other areas of emergency work.