Mitigating the risks of working in confined spaces


Thursday, 14 July, 2022

Mitigating the risks of working in confined spaces

Confined spaces can contribute to workplace injuries; a confined space is generally an enclosed or partially enclosed space that has features which can present potentially dangerous situations. For example, a space that has such conditions as low oxygen levels, unstable materials and contaminants that may cause fire or explosion, or harmful levels of airborne contaminants. Confined spaces are commonly linked with mining and manufacturing, but there are other workplaces of various sizes and locations that can also be affected, including pipes, manholes, elevator shafts, ducts, culverts, tunnels, alkylation units, trench boxes, utility vaults, reaction vessels, waste treatment facilities, storage tanks and silos, and maintenance of machines in a confined space.

When identifying a confined space, the first step is to see whether the workspace being assessed fits the definition of a “confined space” as laid out in the WHS regulations, the Australian Standards and the Code of Practice. Ash Mayor, Specialist Trainer and Assessor for 3M Safety and Training, said that a workspace may not fit the definition laid out in the Standard, but could still be regarded as a hazardous workspace requiring similar controls. A confined space is an area that has been deemed to have met certain criteria: it is an enclosed or partially enclosed space which isn’t primarily designed to be occupied; is at normal atmospheric pressure while people are in it and is, or is likely to be, a risk to health and safety due to an unsafe level of oxygen; or contains contaminants including gases, vapours or dusts which may cause fire or explosion; or a harmful concentration of airborne contaminants; or engulfment.

Consideration should be given to the number of people in a confined space and the work undertaken, along with the duration of time in the space. “Hazards arising from manual tasks may be exacerbated by physical constraints when working in a confined space. This also can include PPE (personal protective equipment) which can restrict mobility,” Mayor said.

Nick Stinziani, Business Development Manager (Fall Protection) for MSA Australia, said the selection and use of approved, fit-for-purpose PPE is important, and personnel involved in confined space operations must be fully trained in the use and maintenance of all related PPE, monitoring and rescue equipment.

Conducting risk assessments

Risk assessments can help mitigate the risks of working in confined spaces; the purpose of a risk assessment is to identify potential hazards, identify tasks that are required to perform the job, review methods used to complete the tasks, identify the hazards involved and the associated risks related to the method required to complete the task, and assess the competency of workers to perform the task. To minimise the risks of confined spaces in the workplace, employers are advised to adhere to appropriate risk assessment processes and to follow the definitions provided by SafeWork Australia’s Confined Spaces Code of Practice, Regulation 5. Risk assessments come in various forms including Job Hazard Analysis (JHA) or a Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS).

“The WHS Regulations require employers to work through the hierarchy of control measures when managing certain risks, such as confined space operations. The hierarchy of control is a system for controlling risks, using a step-by-step approach to eliminate or reduce risks, ranking it from the highest level of protection to the lowest, or least reliable,” Stinziani said.

Further guidance on the risk management process and the hierarchy of control measures is provided in the Code of Practice: How to manage work health and safety risks.

Implementing rescue plans

Employers are advised to consider implementing rescue plans — these can include site evaluation and a trained rescue team that knows what procedures to follow should they be required. Rescue plans can also include the identification of proper safety equipment and other required tools, and accredited training that involves practice and hands-on experience for all parties who will work in and around the confined space.

Mayor said that workers must receive proper training that — at a minimum — complies with Regulation 76 of the Code of Practice, in order to be able to work in confined spaces.

A rescue plan must be a dynamic document that can adapt to changing situations; employers must also understand and acknowledge the relevant National and State Standards, per Regulation 74 of the Code of Practice. Confined space operations can be hazardous and complicated, with a lot to consider. Darren Gallagher, National Category Manager of Workplace Safety for Blackwoods, said it is essential that appropriate equipment is used, procedures are followed and that workers are aware of the specific risks and trained in the specific use of equipment and procedures. “That said, our Technical Safety Specialists, along with our supply partners MSA Safety and 3M, are here to provide customers with the right equipment and access to certified training and awareness seminars,” Gallagher said.


Regulation 74 states that a person conducting a business or undertaking must establish first aid and rescue procedures to be followed in an emergency and ensure that these procedures are practised as necessary.

First aid and rescue procedures must be initiated from outside the confined space as soon as practicable in an emergency. PCBUs must also ensure that openings for entry and exit are of a sufficient size to allow emergency access; openings are not obstructed; and any plant, equipment and PPE provided for first aid is maintained in good working order.

Regulation 76 states that the training provided to relevant workers must cover the nature of all hazards associated with a confined space; the need for and appropriate use of risk control measures; the selection, fit, use, testing and storage of any personal protective equipment; and the contents of any relevant confined space entry permit.

Image credit: © Access

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