On-the-job deaths associated with confined spaces have plummeted from their highest level — 100 U.S. confined-space deaths in 2000 — to just 15 in 2012, much because confined-space work has been turned over to automation and robots. Even so, oil and gas workers still are often required to access tight areas that present unique dangers.
And recent incidents demonstrate the extreme dangers that confined spaces still present.
This April, one person died and three others lost consciousness while in the hold of a cargo ship that docked at a Danish port. The four crewmembers had likely inhaled carbon monoxide released from the ship’s cargo of wood pellets.
And in February 2013, a welder died and another worker was injured in a methane gas dome explosion at a wastewater treatment plant in New York.
Investigators found that the workers’ employers failed to ensure safeguards and to train workers on the hazards associated with methane gas and confined spaces; did not provide combustible gas meters; and failed to provide proper ventilation. As a result, OSHA’s Syracuse Area Office issued seven serious safety citations and fines of $45,720. Oil and natural gas site operators must ensure that atmospheric conditions in confined spaces are safe before anyone enters or works near them.
While these spaces may be large enough for workers to enter and do some work in, they are not necessarily designed for people. In confined spaces, oil and gas workers can be exposed to hazardous chemicals, flammable gases, extreme heat, or exposed live wires. Workers run the risk of being unexpectedly engulfed, and asphyxiation can be an ever-present risk.
Confined spaces found at oil and gas sites include:
- Storage tanks
- Process and reaction vessels
- Ventilation and exhaust ducts
- Tunnels and pits
Steps You Can Take to Increase Safety
According to OSHA regulations, confined spaces that contain or have the potential to contain a serious atmospheric hazard must be classified as permit-required confined spaces, tested prior to entry, and continuously monitored. For other factors that would require you to get a permit for a confined space, check out OSHA’s “quick card.”
On that quick card, OSHA suggests a number of ways employers and site operators can reduce the likelihood of confined-space accidents and injuries. Oil and gas workers should:
- Not enter confined spaces without being trained
- Review, understand, and follow employers’ procedures before entering confined spaces and know how and when to exit
- Identify any physical hazards before entry
- Test and monitor for oxygen content, flammability, toxicity, or explosive hazards before entry and during work
- Use employers’ fall protection, rescue, air-monitoring, ventilation, lighting, and other required safety equipment
Employers themselves should equip confined spaces with ventilation hoses to provide air and with exhaust hoses to suck out toxic vapors. Safety-inspected guardrails and secure ladders (to prevent falls) should also be present.
Moreover, there are three technologies, one old and two more recent, that oil and gas site operators can use to help keep workers safe in confined spaces.
- Walkie-talkies: With confined spaces, old-tech walkie-talkies are often more effective than mobile phones. Such spaces can often interfere with cellphone reception. Workers who enter confined spaces should maintain contact at all times with a trained attendant visually if possible – and always via phone or walkie-talkie, whichever works best. That way, supervisors can evacuate workers and alert the site’s on-site rescue team or call in emergency services when needed.
- Video cameras: While a supervisor may not be able to see workers while they are in a confined space — in fact, without proper lighting, workers may not even be able to see each other – modern camera technology can do so. With manhole cameras, zoom survey cameras, push pipe cameras, and other high-tech video devices — many that can connect to the Internet — supervisors can now ascertain the safety status of any workers in confined spaces.
- Mobile applications: Keeping workers safe out in the field is easier than ever with the use of mobile apps, which employers and workers can download on their smartphones and/or tablets. With mobile apps from GoCanvas, you can access customized inspection checklists for mud pits, petroleum storage tanks, pipelines, and other confined spaces. And apps work in confined spaces, regardless of whether cell phone coverage or Internet connectivity is available.
Cloud-based mobile apps can be developed and used to gather data through safety and health inspections. You can then store that data in the cloud, and then retrieve and analyze it later to obtain valuable insights to ensure worker safety. By mining that data, you can create and provide worker education and training to reduce the risk of injury and death.
GoCanvas offers more than 140 mobile apps devoted to making your oil or gas worksite safer. Most are available for a free trial download — and all are customizable for your specific workplace.