Confined Space Equipment: A Guide
Confined space equipment is any tool or system that protects, aids or rescues someone who is working inside of a confined space. This can include simple tools like signs, radios, and helmets as well as more complex equipment like gas monitors, manhole pumps, and retrieval gear.
Essentially, if a tool helps a worker operate safely and efficiently within a confined space, it is considered confined space equipment.
Confined space equipment is used in a number of industries, including oil and gas, mining, power generation, wastewater management, maritime industry, construction, and more.
In this guide, we’ll review the definition of a confined space and take a closer look at the different types of confined space equipment used across the world today. Use the menu below to jump around within this confined space equipment guide:
- What is a Confined Space?
- Dangers of Confined Space Entry
- Requirements for Confined Space Entry
- Types of Confined Space Equipment
- Drones as Confined Space Equipment
What Is a Confined Space?
Generally, the term confined space refers to any enclosed space that, while not specifically designed for people, is large enough for a worker to enter into and perform certain specialized jobs.
Some common examples of confined spaces include:
- Air Ducts
- Storage Containers
While there are many examples of confined spaces, the definition is actually fairly specific. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), three criteria must be met for in order for an area to officially be classified as a confined space:
- The space has limited options for entry and exit
- The space is not intended for continuous human occupancy
- The space is large enough for one to enter and perform work
Many enclosed spaces or work environments may meet one or two of these qualifications but still not be considered a confined space.
These environments may indeed be dangerous to work in, but if a space does meet all three criteria listed above, it cannot be officially classified as confined space.
The rest of this guide will focus specifically on the dangers associated with confined spaces and the different kinds of confined space tools that are used to prevent harm in these dangerous environments.
[For an in depth look at the industrial work that takes place in enclosed areas and how to identify and manage a confined space in your own workplace, check out this other helpful Flyability guide.]
Dangers of Confined Space Entry
Working within a confined space brings a wide range of dangers and hazards for a worker. Confined space equipment then works to minimize, mitigate, prevent, or protect from these dangers.
Below are the different types of hazards that can present themself when working within a confined space. Once these dangers are identified and understood, it’s easier to see how and why different kinds of confined space equipment aids and protects workers.
- Atmospheric Hazards. Atmospheric hazards in confined spaces include areas that are oxygen deficient or oxygen rich, areas that contain toxic gasses, or areas that contain mists, fumes or other fogs that are dangerous to the human body.
- Chemical & Biological Exposure. This can occur if the confined space has bacteria that is dangerous for skin contact, ingestion, or inhalation. Dangerous chemicals also fall into this type of confined space hazard.
- Engulfment. Engulfment occurs when a worker is engulfed, covered or suffocated by a liquid or loose solid like those stored in hoppers or silos.
- Fire Hazards. An area contains fire hazards if there are flammable gasses or dusts within it or if the atmosphere itself is filled with flammable gasses.
- Mechanical & Physical Hazards. These hazards include dangers related to noise, heat/cold, radiation, vibration, electrical, structural hazards, sloping walls or floors, falling debris, collapse, moving parts of equipment, inadequate lighting, entanglement, engulfment, slips, or falls.
- Rescue Hazards. Unfortunately, one of the most dangerous aspects of working in confined spaces is rescuing someone who is trapped or at risk within one. In fact, according to the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety, 60% of fatalities in confined spaces are from would-be rescuers.
Requirements for Confined Space Entry
Confined space equipment is designed to combat the many hazards listed above as well as the many inherent risks that come with operating and working within a confined space. No matter the environment, all confined space equipment will need to:
- Protect the limited number of entrances and exits
- Keep non-workers from falling into the confined space
- Provide ventilation
- Provide a safe way for workers to enter and exit
- Provide equipment and gear that meets application ANSI standards
However, there are often a number of other steps that need to be taken before a worker can safely enter a confined space.
Permit-Required Confined Spaces
Before a worker even picks up their radio, gas monitor, pump, or other confined space tool, a “confined space permit” will ensure that the area is safe for entry and that a worker has met all the requirements to proceed inside. In this way, the confined space permit is one of the most basic and effective pieces of confined space safety equipment.
Depending on the space and the associated dangers, the requirements for entry into a confined space will vary. In many workplaces that deal with confined spaces, a qualified person must complete a safety checklist or “confined space permit” before entering into the area each time.
OSHA defines a “permit-required confined space” as an enclosed area that, in addition to meeting the criteria of a confined space, also contains one or more of the additional hazards noted above.
If a confined space has an atmospheric, chemical or physical hazard associated with it, it is all but certain that a safety permit will be required for entry.
OSHA lists in detail the specific requirements for confined space entry in a number of different fields like construction, maritime and general industry, but, broadly, a confined space entry permit will define some or all of the following parameters:
- Purpose of entry
- Time to be spent working inside confined space
- People authorized to enter confined space
- Atmospheric conditions of confined space
- Attendant designated to stay outside of confined space
- Method of communication between person inside confined space and person outside
- Elimination of hazards
Non Permit-Required Confined Spaces
There are some confined spaces that do not meet this criteria, and the requirements and equipment required for entry are far less strict than that of a permit-required confined space. Some examples of non-permit confined spaces include:
- Crawl spaces under houses
- Drop Ceilings
- Equipment closets
- Machinery Cabinets
- Ventilated tunnels
Types of Confined Space Equipment
Now that we know what a confined space is, the dangers that are associated with them, and the requirements for entering into one, we can begin to look in detail at the confined space tools and equipment that are used to help and protect workers across industries.
As mentioned above, communication between a worker in a confined space and the attendants still on the outside is vital. If a worker becomes trapped, something goes wrong inside of the confined space, or an unexpected hazard presents itself, one should quickly and easily be able to inform their coworkers of the issue.
Confined space radios and other confined space equipment built for communication allows for messaging even in the most restricted areas. Common confirmed space communication equipment includes kits that are outfitted with the following:
- Talk boxes
- Head harnesses
- Carrying cases
- Communication system cables
Descent, Rescue, and Retrieval Systems
Oftentimes, one will need to be lowered into and raised out of a confined space in order to properly perform their duties. Sometimes, the same technology will need to be used as rescue equipment as well.
The confined space equipment used to descend and ascend from a confined space like a manhole is vital to worker safety and success. Confined space equipment used in descent and retrieval systems include:
- Fall arresters
- Full body harnesses
- Hoists, winches, and retractable devices
- Mounts for walls and vehicles
- Pulleys and rescue systems
- Tripods and steadiers
While most of the confined space equipment listed in this guide is concerned with preventing and minimizing dangers and accidents, sometimes incidents do happen. When they do, it is best to be immediately prepared. In addition to having rescue and retrieval systems on hand, workers operating in confined spaces should also ensure that emergency medical equipment is always available.
Medical equipment that can be used as tools in confined spaces include:
- Breathing Apparatuses
- First Aid Boxes
Meters and Monitors
Devices that can measure the quality of the air and surrounding environment are vital to workers operating within a confined space and are important confined space safety equipment.
A toxic gas meter or a monitor that scans for certain chemicals in the air are examples of confined space equipment that falls into this very important category.
PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)
While the specific type of equipment used in confined spaces may vary from area to area, general personal protective equipment (PPE) should also be in most confined space scenarios.
Here are examples of PPE commonly used as confined space tools:
- Appropriate Clothing
- Eye and face Protection
- Flashlights and Headlamps
- Foot Protection
- Hard hats
Signage and Permits
It may seem simple, but adequate and appropriate signage is also vital to making sure that work environments with confined spaces stay safe. Signs should be clear, have contrasting colors, be in multiple languages if applicable, and widely posted and easily visible.
Signs used as confined space tools may include messages of the confined space itself or of the hazards within it. “Enter By Permit Only” and “Authorized Personnel Only” are the most common messages found on signs used as confined space equipment.
As discussed above, a confined space permit is the first line of defense against workplace accidents in confined spaces. In working towards this goal some signs may also provide, hold, or inform about the location of the permits that are required for entry.
These permit holder signs should be prominently displayed and easily accessible for all workers like all other signage.
If a contained space contains an atmospheric, chemical or flammable hazard, it’s good practice to keep the confined space ventilation while it is occupied. Tools for confined spaces that ventilate and remove air contaminants are widespread and have a number of different use cases.
Ventilation equipment used as tools for confined spaces include:
- Ventilation Tubes
Confined Space Equipment Used for Data Collection and Inspection
Another category of confined space equipment is the technology and tools that are used to assist inspectors and repair specialists gather data and other information about the area in which they are operating.
The majority of work that occurs in confined spaces are inspection and repairs, so any technology or equipment that can help workers perform these tasks faster, safer and more efficiently can and should be considered vital tools for confined spaces.
Some examples of tools used for data collection as confined space equipment include:
- Camera-on-a-Stick. A DIY or industrialized “camera-on-a-stick” is a camera lowered from the top of a confined space. Though basic in design, this approach can represent a very cost-efficient and effective solution for collecting images without human entry.
- Crawler Robots. Crawler robots are the tool of choice for the inspection of long spaces with a consistent geometry, such as pipes and ducts. These robots are usually connected to the outside world by a tether, which provides power and a data link. Because they’re connected to a power source, they can be used by inspectors to perform live inspections several hundreds meters down a pipe for an unlimited time.
- Snake Robots. Snake robots can enter through a manhole and be operated inside a tank. Inspectors can maneuver them around internals to access virtually any place located close enough from the entry point. The only drawbacks of such systems are its large weight and footprint.
- Climber Robots. Climber robots use magnets to climb vertical surfaces and thus freely navigate the surface of metallic confined spaces, provided that the environment does not feature sharp angles that might block the movement. While some miniature versions of such climbers have been developed, most climber robots are typically heavy and expensive equipment.
Drones as Confined Space Equipment
If the data collection equipment noted above helps workers and inspectors spend less time in confined spaces, then drones or other uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) can help them never step foot in them at all.
Many of the dangers and hazards to human workers that are present in confined spaces have a minimal effect on drones. Noise, lack of oxygen, airborne chemicals, bacteria, suffocation–none of it affects an uncrewed vehicle at all.
For this reason, drones have quite a few benefits as confined space equipment. They can be maneuvered into areas where humans could never reach and collect data at a rate faster than any human.
Elios 3 drone used for confined space inspections
No longer will there be a need for intricate permit authorizations and expensive preventative equipment; instead, attention can be focussed on drones and other UAVs.
Drones make working in confined spaces safer, faster and more efficient, and as the cost of UAVs continues to drop over the coming years, it's likely that a revolution in confined space equipment is coming.
In fact, in many ways, this revolution has already happened. There are a number of case studies right here at Flyability that show the power of drones as confined space equipment.
In one, Flyablilty’s Elios drone reached a previously inaccessible part of a mine-in a fraction of the time it would take human workers to clear a path. In another, the Elios 2 drone saved a company $50,000 by doing chimney and boiler inspections with a drone instead of using professional industrial climbers.
Clearly, drones and other UAVs are poised to become the single most important piece of confined space equipment for workers in all industries.
For now, there is still merit, use and need for the other types of confined space tools we’ve explored in this guide, but as drones continue to make confined space work safer and easier, many of the tools in this guide may slowly become less and less important.
We are hosting demonstrations throughout the world to showcase our new indoor inspection drone.
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