A well-thought out, well-executed confined space rescue plan can mean the difference between life and death.
Confined space rescue is a sensitive operation, one you don’t want to improvise. You can have the best equipment, but if your team is not prepared to use it, a bad situation can quickly get worse.
According to the CDC, would-be rescuers account for 60% of all confined space deaths. Without a well –thought–out and rehearsed rescue plan, both injured workers and panicked helpers are at risk.
Rescues are a high-stress situation. When people are under stress, they don’t always make the best decisions. While having a plan won’t remove all of the pressure of a rescue, it does make your response more automatic, reducing the risk of a fatal mistake.
We are going to take some time here to go over the very basics of what it takes to create your rescue plan. We’ll also talk about why the alternatives OSHA offers employers can come up short.
Before we begin, just a reminder that these guidelines are just the start. It is up to you to formulate your safety plans in accordance with OSHA guidelines and your specific jobsite. And this post IS NOT a substitute for thorough, on-hands training.
With that said, let’s take a look at the three building blocks of any good confined space safety plan: preparation, planning, and practice.
Prepare Your Confined Space Rescue Team
You know your work crews better than anyone. You can use that insight to identify who would be best suited to conducting confined space rescues.
In a previous post, we outlined some of the qualities to look for when appointing a confined space attendant. And some of those basic traits also apply here.
First and foremost, you want people who are calm under pressure. Rescue from confined spaces can involve injured parties, deadly gases, and a ticking clock. Your rescuer needs to be aware of danger, but also able to focus on the task at hand.
Ask yourself: do they handle stress well? Do they ask for help when they need it? Are they able to focus while multiple things are going on around them? Do you trust them?
If you answered yes to all of those questions, that may well be someone you want on your rescue team.
You’ll also want to make sure that your rescue team communicates clearly and effectively, so that should anything go wrong during operations, the entrant can ask to be pulled out.
If you’re part of a larger crew, you may need different rescue teams at different jobsites simultaneously. Designate enough members for your confined space rescue teams that you’re covered everywhere you work on a given day.
You may know that OSHA allows for employers to rely on local emergency services for confined space rescue, rather than an in-house rescue team.
Drawbacks to Using Local Emergency Services
While that may sound good—there are significant drawbacks that mean it is not recommended that you rely on 911 for confined space rescue.
There’s a pretty good chance your field work takes your crews over a larger geographical area than the jurisdiction of your preferred agency. Even if that’s not the case, that same variation can make response times unpredictable.
OSHA requires employers to use emergency services which are already equipped for rescues. They must have adequate equipment like gas monitors, fall protection, extraction equipment, and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Not every agency has all this.
When choosing an emergency service, OSHA also requires employers to select one that is able to respond quickly to different hazards on site. Your desired agency must also agree to inform you if their rescue team becomes unavailable.
Emergency services are responsible for everyone in their jurisdiction. Though it may seem unlikely that two confined space rescues would be needed in different locations at the same time, it’s not a risk worth taking.
Some guidance outlines the difference between what’s known as time-sensitive and not time-sensitive rescues. Technically, a time-sensitive rescue involves outside hazards like gas or fire. A non-time sensitive rescue would be a worker with a broken ankle but with no other hazards present.
It’s important to act efficiently in time-sensitive rescues, but the sooner any injured worker can be rescued, the better. Bring the sense of urgency to all rescues that you would to time-sensitive ones, and your outcomes should generally improve.
Part of maintaining that urgent mindset means having rescuers on hand. Choosing to name and train your own in-house rescue teams means help is always at hand and eases the burden on emergency services.
Why spend so much time up top on choosing the members of your rescue team?
Because every step of planning that follows should involve your rescue team. These are the people you need to respond quickly when the chips are down, after all.
So gather your rescue team around you, it’s time to make a rescue plan.
Based on your past experience with a certain type of job, you may already be familiar with the hazards you may face. And that’s great! You can definitely draw on that knowledge, but don’t rely on it.
The basis of any effective confined space rescue plan is familiarity with the workspace. Before work actually starts, the rescue team needs to survey the entire area.
Potential rescuers need to know the size, location, and layout of any areas they might need to enter. Where are there corners, obstructions, or pockets of space where a fallen worker may be located?
If an injured worker is very lucky, they’ll fall straight below the confined space entrance, making it easy to hook them up to an extraction device.
More likely, they’ll be deeper inside the confined space and having rescuers familiar with the layout will speed recovery and help prevent additional injuries.
Beyond that, intimate familiarity with the layout will help with the extraction of the injured worker. Any obstructions between the worker and the path of exit need to be cleared, otherwise the rescue could fail or the worker could suffer more injuries.
The bottom line here is take the time. Take the time to go over the space with your rescue team. Take the time to make diagrams and discuss potential rescue hazards with your team. Every minute you spend now will pay dividends in an emergency.
After analyzing potential hazards, make a list of what additional equipment your rescue team might need to keep close (SCBA in case of gas, for example).
Make sure your rescue equipment is inspected and ready to go. We’ve outlined this process in an earlier post, and you’ll save valuable time conducting these inspections in the field before you need the equipment.
Finally, take the time to write what you’ve discussed with your team into a rescue plan. Having something on paper helps ensure consistency in high-stress situations.
Between making the plan and getting to work, there’s one important thing left to do.
Practice Your Workplace Rescue Plan
Now that you have your plan in hand, take the time to run through at least one practice scenario.
It’s crucial that your rescue team doesn’t just know what they need to do, but that they have gone through the process themselves. They might spot problems with the plan they wouldn’t otherwise. Even a minor correction could be lifesaving.
Additionally, the more you practice rescue plans, the more your rescue team develops muscle memory for each task involved in rescue. So much of this process is about shaving seconds off rescue times, and every little bit helps.
It’s important to not just limit these drills to the members of your rescue squad, rather your whole team should at least observe your practice rescues.
If your whole crew is familiar with how your rescue procedures are executed, they will be less likely to obstruct or interfere with rescue, and they may even be able to spot problems your rescue team misses.
Practice before starting work and whenever you have downtime. Familiarize your rescue team with their equipment and always build towards the ideal: smooth rescues that almost seem automatic.
We say “almost seem automatic” because, as we’ve laid out, even mundane rescues require attentive, thorough preparation. Each step, from preparation to planning to practice, is designed to ensure your rescues are executed effectively.
It may seem like a lot, but if it means one of your crew gets home safe to their family, it’s more than worth it.