New complications in construction's confined space environs

Working at Height Association
By Richard Millar, Chief Executive Officer, Working at Height Association
Monday, 19 October, 2020

New complications in construction's confined space environs

The construction industry is one that has been able to continue to operate during the coronavirus pandemic, employing many thousands of workers. However, while work continues in this industry, the day-to-day needs for protection must continue too, and the risks posed from the virus itself should also be considered — to ensure workers are appropriately protected, especially when engaged in confined space environments.

Safe Work Australia provides significant guidance for construction companies on its website regarding the duties of employers to provide adequate protections for workers — as well as additional procedures for reducing exposure and the risk of spreading the disease. Working in the construction industry can never be considered risk-free and the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic just adds further complications to the work environment, especially in areas which are deemed to be confined spaces, of which there are many variations.

In construction

Confined space variations in the construction industry include:

  • Sewers and pits
  • Crawl spaces and false ceilings
  • Boilers and storage tanks
  • Ventilation shafts
  • Access tunnels
  • Telecommunications vaults
  • Elevator shafts

Many of these spaces are not a safe, clean environment by their very design and are often not able to be cleaned thoroughly to attain a safe work environment. Each of these areas provides challenges to the worker to remain safe, requiring through education and training a way to control the many and varied potential risks.

Generally, when working in environments deemed to be confined space, the risks to the worker can often be categorised as follows:

  • Low risk — When requiring access not requiring the use of escape breathing apparatus, either because the risk of a hazardous atmosphere is very low or not considered to be a hazard or that the space atmosphere is well ventilated.
  • Medium risk — When requiring access, the use of escape breathing apparatus, either because the risk of a hazardous atmosphere is significant or the time taken to evacuate increases risk to entrants, eg, distance travelled or where there is more than one entrant. There is a realistic expectation of encountering a specified risk either due to the intrinsic hazards or introduced/task hazards.
  • High risk — When requiring access generally requires full working breathing apparatus. This is either because there is a known hazardous atmosphere or the risks of a hazardous atmosphere occurring are significant, may be due to intrinsic hazards within the space or introduced/task hazards.

Many workplace confined spaces have poor ventilation that can allow a hazardous atmosphere to quickly develop. The hazards are not always obvious, may change from one entry into the confined space to the next and depend on the workplace or environmental circumstances. There are minimum training and qualifications to be completed for those expected to work in these environments to be able to provide information, instruction and supervision.

Viral considerations

Until this year, industry has not seriously considered the prospect of viruses being passed onto construction workers through close proximity in the workplace or where a person infected with COVID-19 could inadvertently pass on an airborne transmission of the virus. The virus can be easily spread by an infected person either coughing or sneezing, thereby producing an atomised virus fluid that can either cover a work surface or be inhaled by another worker.

The COVID-19 virus can be introduced to a person in a confined space or passed on to a person with standby duties if the space is: ventilated, has forced air ventilation, or where a person in the confined space is wearing breathing apparatus having an air feed from outside the space they are working in. As a worker in the confined space can be receiving air through forced ventilation, understanding the risk will go a long way to helping protect the worker. Contamination of the work surfaces after exiting the space, or in the air coming from the confined space, which may travel beyond the 1.5 metres, are also risks.

Confined space training is designed to help workers understand the risks. It covers:

  • how to properly wash hands;
  • how to fit and use any necessary personal protective equipment (PPE);
  • adequate cleaning practices required throughout the day;
  • how to set up a safe workplace; and
  • instructions associated with staying home from work if sick.

Training providers are required to maintain a safe training environment. This includes:

  • cleaning the workplace regularly and thoroughly;
  • restructuring the layout of the workplace to allow for physical distancing;
  • limiting the number of people in the training area at any given time;
  • requesting that trainees wear face masks.

Training providers should have adequate facilities in the workplace to protect workers from contracting COVID-19. This includes:

  • a washroom and facilities to include an adequate supply of soap, water and paper towel (workers should be provided with regular breaks to use these facilities, particularly to wash their hands) — if it is not possible for workers to wash their hands, an adequate supply of hand sanitiser needs to be made available; and
  • workspaces that are regularly cleaned and allow for physical distancing.

Risk minimisation

It is the employer’s responsibility to carry out a risk assessment and identify the hazards and controls required to minimise risk. COVID-19 should be included as a hazard on this risk assessment. Additional controls that may be put in place when undertaking training and working in confined spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic include:

  • 1.5 m safe distancing areas marked out where workers/trainees can safely remove their face masks after entering and fit their escape sets, and social distancing to be carried out wherever practicable;
  • no sharing of breathing apparatus;
  • eye protection must be worn;
  • face-to-face and skin-to-skin contact must be avoided;
  • disposable nitrile or similar gloves must always be worn and should be supplemented by other hand protection; and
  • any used breathing apparatus, oxygen resuscitators, analgesic gas or other equipment potentially contaminated with moist droplets emitted from someone’s mouth must be removed by the individual user, placed into its own bag and then placed into a disposable bag before being tied off — these items need to be deep cleaned before re-use.

PPE should be the last resort when considering the hierarchy of controls. As social distancing may be difficult to achieve within a confined space, consideration should be given to providing additional PPE, such as disposable plastic gloves that can be worn underneath normal workwear gloves. Remember, it is the duty of the employer to consult with workers on health and safety matters, which should include the COVID-19 virus.

Forum to raise concerns

Workers should be given an opportunity to express their views and raise any work health and safety concerns. Employers should consider these views and then advise workers of the outcome of this consultation. Consultation can take place when you:

  • conduct a risk assessment;
  • make decisions on control measures to manage the risk of exposure to COVID-19 (eg, decisions on restricting the workplace to allow for physical distancing);
  • make decisions about the adequacy of workplace facilities to allow for control measures such as physical distancing and hygiene;
  • propose other changes that may affect the health and safety of workers; and
  • change any procedures that have an impact on the health and safety of workers.


Remember that cleanliness is king in this environment. Research suggests that the virus can survive on hard surfaces such as plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours or three days. Given that many work surfaces and PPE have hard surfaces, they must be cleaned and disinfected regularly. The Department of Health recommends disinfectants that are suitable for use on hard surfaces (ie, surfaces where any spilt liquid pools rather than soaks in). These chemicals will be labelled as ‘disinfectants’ and must be diluted or used following the instructions on the packaging to be effective.

They include:

  • alcohol in a concentration of at least 70%;
  • chlorine bleach in a concentration of 1000 parts per million;
  • oxygen bleach; and
  • wipes and sprays that contain quaternary ammonium compounds.

More information about disinfectant selection and preparing bleach solutions can be found at the Department of Health’s ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19) Environmental cleaning and disinfection principles for health and residential care facilities’.

From all this, one thing is certain: COVID-19 has changed the way we work and the meaning of health and safety in the workplace. But, it may just show us a better way to operate as we change our work methods to look after our workers’ health moving forward.

Image credit: © pol

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