Equipped for Confined Space

Is your staff prepared for a rescue?

By Alexandra Walsh

Confined spaces exist in nearly every industry, and many workers encounter at least one of them during their workday. Of course, in the water well drilling industry, confined space is as common as office space is in other industries.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, about 90 deaths involving confined spaces occur every year across a wide range of industries.

Unfortunately, two-thirds of those deaths are workers who are killed while trying to rescue someone else from a confined space!

This is often because of the critical nature of these kinds of rescues, which sometimes lead to poorly planned attempts to rescue workers from a confined space.

With a focus on decreasing or minimizing injuries and fatalities, OSHA established 29 CFR 910.146 – Permit-Required Confined Spaces as a safety standard to protect employees from injury or death when working in a confined space.

The standard stipulates that for employees to enter permit-required confined spaces, an employer’s confined space program must include necessary measures and resources for rescue. These requirements include:

  • All confined spaces identified and those considered hazardous marked with “Permit Required”
  • A rescue team that is available
  • Training focused on the skills necessary to rescue in confined spaces
  • Proper rescue equipment for entry into and exit from a confined space.

Occupational safety experts know preparedness, training focusing on skills needed for rescuing, knowledge and proper operation of rescue equipment, and hands-on practice in a realistic scenario make rescue teams more proficient and reduce human mistakes when freeing someone from a confined space.

Identifying Confined Spaces

OSHA defines a confined space as “large enough that a person can bodily enter, has limited or restricted means for entry or exit, and is not designed for continuous occupancy.”

If the confined space has a potentially hazardous atmosphere, poses a danger that could cover up or suffocate a worker, a configuration that could entrap a worker—OSHA requires these spaces or any other serious hazard be classified and marked as “Permit Required.”

OSHA requires a company’s written confined space program include specific procedures for conducting rescue in all permit-required confined spaces identified as being present at their place of business or work.

Confined Space Rescue Team

Employers must have a rescue team ready and available while employees are working in a confined space. The OSHA standard, however, does contain this caution: Your rescue team must be able to respond in a “timely manner.”

OSHA defines “timely manner” based on the hazards associated with the space. An exception does exist: “If entering an Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) Permit-Required Confined Space, the rescue team is required to be at the space, on-site, and ready to rescue prior to entry (refer to 1910.134).”

Some employers misunderstand the permit-required space requirements and think that only bad atmospheres cause injury or a fatality. But not only the atmosphere in a space can cause injury or death, it can be a medical condition—a heart attack, a stroke, or heat exhaustion—in a confined space.

And sad to say, a high percentage of confined space fatalities are co-workers trying to save the worker trapped or in trouble.

The local fire department might not be considered a rescue option because there is no guarantee it can respond in a timely manner nor have the technical training or equipment to perform a rescue.

OSHA requires employers to develop and implement procedures and have a rescue team trained and equipped on site for rescuing workers in a confined space and preventing anyone unauthorized from attempting a rescue.

A rescue team on-site at your facility prior to entry is not just critical, but is required in 1910.146.

Confined Space Rescue Training

Training must focus on the skills necessary to rescue someone in the confined space. Developing a proficient rescue team is done by training with practice exercises and real-life circumstances relative to the confined spaces you meet in your business.

Employees should not only have the skills but be able to apply those skills to rescue scenarios they are confronted with and must think how best to make the rescue. Skills proficiency is only half of the training; the other half is how to apply the skills in a hands-on rescue scenario, how to think through the scenario, how to keep members of the rescue team safe, and how to identify hazards and challenges associated with the rescue.

Training instructors need to be familiar with the particular confined spaces that are identified with and encountered in your business so that they can design and deliver a rescue training program that meets your needs. They should train employees using your company’s rescue equipment since your rescuers must be confident and know how to use the equipment properly and effectively.

Confined Space Rescue Equipment

Rescue equipment should be geared toward effective entry into and exit from a confined space. Besides the available rescue equipment, rescue teams must have the proper training on the equipment and know how to best use the equipment effectively.

This requires employers to be familiar with their existing rescue equipment and equipment needs, examine and evaluate the latest rescue equipment available, and provide their rescue team with equipment that reduces mistakes and increases professionalism.

Technological and design advances in rescue equipment have moved significantly ahead in recent years. It is important to keep up with what is available in all forms of rescue equipment and determine which items of equipment are best suited for your team.

Updating rescue procedures, equipment, and training specific to your needs is an integral part of the 29 CFR 910.146 standard. By following the standard and continuously preparing your rescue team for higher performance, your focus will result in decreasing or minimizing injuries and fatalities associated with confined spaces.


Not being able to rescue a worker who is caught in a confined space has a devastating impact on your company, and more importantly, your employees.

To help meet your professional needs, this column covers skills and competencies found in DACUM charts for drillers, pump installers, and geothermal contractors. DO refers to the drilling chart, PI refers to the pumps chart, and GO represents the geothermal chart. The letter and number immediately following is the skill on the chart covered by the column. This column covers: DOA-4, DOD-8, DOK-8, 9, DOL-2, 3, PIB-2, PIG-3, GOA-4, GOD-10, GOI-8, 9, GOJ-2, 3. More information on DACUM and the charts are available at www.NGWA.org/Certification and click on “Certification Exams.”

Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.