The ability to maintain a workforce that is both properly trained in safety procedures and actively practicing what they have learned is an ongoing task for utility safety professionals. While you may be providing all the safety training required by your company and/or OSHA, ensuring that employees are following the guidelines is another matter. Nowhere is this more important than when working in confined spaces.
A large percentage of deaths that occur annually in confined spaces involve rescuers who are either improperly trained or, in a confused panic, not following proper procedures. In investigations following a number of these incidents, it was determined that the victims did not use the safety tools that were required for the job. In some cases, the tools were on site but not operational.
A typical confined space entry in the utilities industry requires the entrant to monitor the area before entry using a gas detector. Following that, the space must be purged and ventilated using a mechanical ventilator. Most utility safety experts have probably supplied proper classes and equipment for workers using OSHA regulations as a guideline. Depending on the specific utility, these requirements may fall under OSHA 1910.146, 1910.268, or 1910.269.
While providing safety equipment to employees and reviewing proper procedures is important, responsibility for its maintenance is essential. Any safety product is only as good as the people who use and maintain it. Some people actually believe that the equipment will magically work whenever they decide they may need it, but the equipment must be inspected and maintained regularly. Here are some guidelines to follow:
For portable ventilators, a daily inspection routine should include checking all electrical connections for loose or frayed wiring. All plugs or adapters must not show cracks or breaks and no grounding pins must be broken off the plug. Ensure that all safety grilles on inlet and outlet sides are securely attached to the ventilator body. Make certain that the housing is not dented or damaged in a way that may impede the function of the fan blade or centrifugal blower wheel. In addition, ventilation hoses must be inspected to ensure there are no rips or holes.
Gas detection devices need to be maintained at an even more stringent level. Most portable units in the field today have time-sensitive sensor technology. Also, the battery life of these units must be monitored to ensure an adequate power supply. Utilities should be maintaining a log of each unit showing when the next calibration is due, when sensors are due to be changed, and a record of any other maintenance issues with the instrument.
Newer gas detection technology allows the instrument to perform a self-diagnosis during its start-up phase. At that time, the instrument will indicate if there are any electronic or sensor issues. However, the one thing that it cannot tell you is if the alarms will function properly when the sensors come in contact with gas. The only way to determine this is to apply gas to the instrument in what's known as an alarm or "bump" check.
Retrieval and/or fall arrest equipment also needs to be inspected before use. Cables on winches and fall arrest blocks, such as self-retracting lifelines, must be inspected visually to determine if there are any broken strands or kinks. If a winch or fall arrest block actually prevents a fall, it should be returned to the manufacturer for recertification.
Body harnesses should be inspected for wear, broken threads, and damaged hardware. A harness that has been involved in a fall arrest situation must be removed from service. The anchor points, whether tripods or davit-type systems, must be inspected for visual damage. A tripod or a davit system that has been involved in a fall arrest situation should be returned to the manufacturer for recertification.
All other confined space products, such as communications and breathable air systems, must be maintained and inspected using the manufacturers' guidelines.
There is documented proof of spaces in which people have worked on a weekly basis, sometimes for more than 20 years, which suddenly became a danger due to changes in conditions. While sometimes inexplicable, these areas can be safely negotiated when workers are prepared in procedure and equipped with proper and properly maintained products.
Excuses like "We've never had a problem before" must be eliminated from the vocabulary of confined space utility workers. Talk with your staff. Make certain of their competence, not only in their abilities but also in their understanding of safety procedures.
The job may be routine, boring and mundane, but complacency must never be allowed to be a part of it. Making certain that employees go home to their families each evening should be at the forefront of every utility safety professional's priorities. ip
Dave Mooney joined the T.A. Pelsue Company 16 years ago at its Canadian manufacturing facility in Montreal, and since 1999 has held the position of Sales & Marketing Manager at the company's headquarters in Englewood, Colorado. During his tenure at Pelsue, Mooney has been instrumental in working in the field with numerous utilities to determine product requirements for confined space programs. He has also become proficient in the interpretation of OSHA confined space entry regulations.
ABOUT T.A. PELSUE
T.A. Pelsue Company is widely recognized in the telecommunications and utility industries as a leading supplier of high quality safety and construction support products, including confined space safety and fall arrest and retrieval equipment, as well as portable tents and shelters. For more information, visit www.pelsue.com.