Confined Space 101: A Simple Guide For Rescuers

Many workers and fireman in the US will deal with confined space rescue as part of their profession. The majority of the time, these trained individuals will be able to perform their duties with ease and no risk to their life and safety.

Provided they have the right training for the role, they will know how to assess hazards and conduct their work safely.

However, accidents can still happen.

In this guide, I want to discuss the subject of confined space rescue from both the perspective of the fire service and those that may need to learn this skill in their profession.

I want to talk about the different factors that go into a successful rescue attempt. In this section, you will see it is so essential that trained fire service professionals perform the rescue instead of under-qualified colleagues.

This includes information on the rescue plan, safety precautions and the fire equipment used. Then, I want to look at the training that you will need to do in order to become qualified in this field.

Confined Space vs Restricted Space

The general definition of a confined space is an area with limited or restricted means of entry and exits. They are places where workers can carry out their jobs but are generally off-limits to anyone else.

This could be for a variety of reasons including industrial chemical risks or other safety considerations.

Examples of areas that are confined spaces include silos, bins, pits and other tank-like structures. Workers may enter them for maintenance or cleaning and have some form of a medical emergency.

Other examples include pipes, ducts and tunnels in industrial settings or perhaps sewer systems.

By comparison, a restricted space doesn’t have the same dangers as these confined spaces.

They aren’t the same types of industrial spaces with the same hazards. Restricted spaces are, however, very similar in regard to the difficulty in gaining access to anyone trapped.

For example, a natural structure, cave or a well with a restricted means of exit could be a restricted space. But, if they have good airflow and fewer safety risks, they don’t classify this as confined space situation.

What is confined space rescue?

While these confined rescues are relatively rare compared to other calls in the US, there are still plenty of potential dangers.

Workers may be trained and experienced when dealing with confined duct or pipework, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t fall ill or injure themselves in there. This is also a possibility if there is some sort of chemical leak or other atmospheric risks.

With the silos, tanks and other industrial equipment in the farms and plants, there is the risk of engulfment, drowning and other hazardous materials.

There are three main categories of rescue attempts for confined spaces as defined by OSHA. They are:

  • Non-entry rescue
  • Entry rescue by other professionals
  • Rescue by trained professionals within the company itself.

Rescue attempts by the fire department will fall into the second of these categories. This is when an emergency call is put out to the fire department on behalf of those trapped so that they can come and perform the rescue.

However, if a company, such as major plant or industrial facility, has its own trained specialists then they might be able to handle the situation themselves.

Here they must have the right training – something I will talk about more later.

Either way, the rescue will be performed by trained professionals. Firefighters will enter the structure if need to retrieve the victim in a secure, safe manner.

However, where possible, they will use the non-entry procedure to send equipment and ropes down into the structure. This is preferred because it doesn’t place the fire crew at any unnecessary risk.

Why is it so important to have trained professionals in these situations?

The worst thing that any company or employee can do in these situations is to try and help themselves. Some will see a friend in danger and decide to rush in and help.

However, this puts both parties at greater risk if the rescuer doesn’t have appropriate training in the matter.

They could cause damage to the structure on entry, spark flammable materials or injure the victim more severely if they aren’t careful. There is also a good chance that they will fall trying to enter the space, injure themselves and create a second rescue situation.

This often happens when the rescuer doesn’t understand the situation, hazards, appropriate rescue methods and first aid.

In fact, around 60% of fatalities in confined space rescues are said to be those rescuers rather than the original victim. The best option is to call for help – either from the trained professionals on staff or from the fire department.

Confined Space Training

There is a lot to consider when it comes to creating a rescue plan. Those that go into the space or coordinate a plan from the surface need experience to create and manage an effective and safe plan of action.

Professional confined space training courses will teach trainees about the following:

  • The different types of rescue plans
  • The importance of a good response time
  • The equipment involved and how to use it
  • Safety precautions and understanding hazards

Understanding Rescue Plans

The issues above show why it is so important that teams have a good understanding of what it takes to put together a clear rescue plan. This means strategizing on-site to use the space and available equipment appropriately.

Where possible, teams will always try and use non-entry to stop rescuers putting themselves at too much risk of harm in the process. But, this isn’t always possible. No team can rush into an entry rescue without assessing every aspect and creating a clear plan.

Firefighters will have the training and communication skills as a crew to do so effectively. The approach here is no different to any other emergency in terms of professionalism and the calm, practical approach.

Health and safety assessments must be carried out, the area must be secured, and everyone needs to know what the plan is for entering the space, treating the victim, packaging them for retrieval and getting both them and the rescuer to safety.

A clear rescue plan requires the following:

  • Familiarization with the space in the facility. This means training in the different situations that they may face and prior knowledge of the local facilities.
  • The hazards in the area – including all those risks below.
  • Determining the best way to enter the space if needed and the right strategy to use
  • Which pieces equipment to use for the best result.

Offensive vs Defensive Plans

One of the sad truths here in this line of work is that rescuers often have to deal with fatalities. People fall and die from their injuries.

They can suffocate from the lack of oxygen or unsafe atmospheric conditions. They can also die from engulfment in those silo and tank incidents.

Firefighters must be prepared to create a strategy for body recovery rather than victim rescue. This is perhaps something that is easier for the firefighters, who deal with fatalities regularly in their line of service, than for any trained rescuers that work for a company.

This is where you get the difference in strategies between the offensive and defensive plans.

There is a critical difference between the two and rescuers need to understand the best ways to handle both.

Offensive plans refer to rescues where there is a victim to rescue and there are controllable hazards. The risks to the crew are minimal and there is a good chance that lives can be saved.

The defensive plans place the emphasis on the safety of the crew because there is no chance of saving the victim. This is about recovering the body in a way that minimizes harm to crew members in a hazardous situation.

Confined Space Rescue Equipment

There are a lot of potential items of safety equipment and rescue equipment that you would need to complete a confined space rescue.

If you take part in a non-entry rescue, then you may need a tripod and maybe even a winch to pull the victim out of the space and keep the rope system stable.

This is most likely in those situations where there is a direct vertical drop into a tank, silo or other structure. Teams can secure the ropes, tripod and winch over the exit point and use it to raise and lower whatever is needed.

If firefighters need to get into space themselves, they will require a strong harness that conforms to safety standards and whatever additional PPE equipment and first aid equipment is necessary. PPE equipment will include respirators, hard hats, safety glasses,

Confined Space Hazards and Precautions

There are lots of hazards to both firefighters and victims in these situations.

There is the structure itself. It is possible that it becomes damaged or collapses. The latter could be a big problem in vents or tunnels where victims were injured by some structural fault.

Can the structure hold the equipment needed and is an entry rescue a safe idea?

Then there is the risk of any dangerous materials in the structure. Are there any dangerous chemicals in the tanks or any leaks that could add to the risk?

This could be chemicals from the plant or other flammable elements. Electrical risks must also be considering if there is damaging wiring in the structure.

A common concern is the atmospheric conditions within the structure. Oxygen levels are typically very low in these areas, so rescuers need to have the right equipment to handle the environment.

Finally, there is the risk of water or another material engulfing both victim and rescuer. Grain silos or other containers can be incredibly dangerous when it comes to engulfment or explosion. Open structures that are outdoors in bad weather can also be at risk during rainfall.

This is why teams must undergo safety checks and create strategic plans based on the situation and opportunities in front of them. You can’t always go by what might be a textbook example.

You need to be able to adapt. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to bring in firefighters for these professional rescues. They have the experience in adapting to dangerous situations.

It isn’t just safety equipment and knowledge of hazards that can save lives. Successful rescues may also depend on the response times of rescuers.

There is a chain here that all parties need to follow efficiently for success.

First, there is the reaction time between the incident occurring and someone reacting to the call for help.

Then there is the contact time between registering what has happened and called for help.

Then the response time of the service attending the scene.

Then the assessment time to understand the situation and best strategy.

Then the preparation time to set up the equipment and finally the rescue time for the operation itself. Each of these elements must be done efficiently and not rushed.

Confined Space Certifications are Essential

You can now see why it is essential that companies call on trained fire personnel to attend these incidents when they don’t have their own trained staff.

Firefighters have the skills to administer aid and create the best rescue plan possible. They can also retrieve bodies in a professional way, if the victim is deceased.

The training and certification for firefighters doesn’t come easy. Firefighters must be prepared to attend specialist courses in confined space rescue

Another point to consider here is that many of the firefighters, if not all, that attend the scene will have EMT training. This means that they are better able to handle medical emergencies on the scene.

Those that try to perform rescues for a company may have the right training in confined spaces but only some first aid and CPR skills.

Confined Space Training Courses

There are a few different courses out there that are certified by OSHA as meeting their standards.

Before anyone can learn about rescue techniques, they need to complete a confined space awareness training course. This 8-hour course covers the basics of what to expect when working in a confined space.

This means knowledge of regulations and procedures as well as guidance on health and safety. Anyone already working in this sort of profession should have this training under their belt. Firefighters may need to start here and then advance.

Then there is a 16-24 hour long course on confined space entry and rescue that offers information on how to handle rescue attempts. This is where you will learn all about the equipment and strategies mentioned above.

OSHA also requires that those qualified in the initial training course take a yearly refresher course to keep up their skills.

The NFPA also creates a series of guides with important information on confined space incidents to help those that deal with these situations.

Finally, there are two important ideas to takeaway when considering a confined space rescue.

First, there is the idea mentioned above of rescue by other professionals. This is that need for fire crews to obtain the best possible training to be able to help out during these incidents.

There is no doubt that these crews can offer the best confined space rescue plans and team efforts because of their additional skills and experience they have.

This means handling both offensive and defensive plans in a respectful, responsible manner.

Then there is the need for appropriate training for those associated with the facility that holds the confined space.

While it may be preferable to call on the fire service for dangerous rescues, it is important to have trained staff just in case.

As I said before, there is nothing worse than having an untrained colleague rush in and lose their life or become injured because they saw no better alternative.

Either way, any rescuer needs the very best training possible to ensure that they have the skills to perform rescues safely.

Certification and knowledge in all things related to confined space rescue can make all the difference between a successful rescue and a fatality.

If you are part of an industry where this training would be of use, make the most of the opportunity to train. If you are a new firefighter, make sure that confined space training is on your list of future training courses.

Other resources you may find useful:

7 Knots Every Firefighter Must Master

Low Angle vs. High Angle Rope Rescue: A Simple Guide

Rope Rescue 101: The Anatomy of Rescue Rope

What Is A Z-drag and How Does It Work?