Toss the dice and take your chances. Some gambles in life hold greater risk than others. Confined Space Entry (CSE) claims an average of 91 lives each year, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In 1972, I knew nothing about CSE and didn't think twice about entering a sewer manhole to crawl along its pipeline and locate a lateral for connecting our customer's new sanitary sewer line. As I crawled past each connected lateral, I prayed no one would flush!
I had tested the air by sniffing, and it looked like air — it was clear like air and it smelled like air. As if air, like bottled water, has a smell or taste! As the years went by, an occasional story would surface about a plumber dying because they entered a pit or were overcome by septic gasses after opening a tank and falling in, only to be followed by a son who also died. The son thinking, instinctively, he was going to save his dad.
Here's a drill to drive this home. Set up an extension ladder at your shop and extend it out to 14-ft. Place an 80-lb. bag of concrete 10-ft. away from the ladder's base. Tag an employee who must, without taking any time to get ready, do the following exercise while holding his or her breath: pick up the 80-lb. bag, climb up and then down the ladder while carrying the bag, and put the bag back where it was. Now, imagine that same employee was trying to hoist their fellow employee out of a pit where the air cannot support life.
When York Water Company initiated a certification program for testing backflow preventers, we immediately signed up. After a three-day class with hands-on labs for testing and determining what was ailing backflow preventers sabotaged by our New England Water Works Association instructors, we were given a final exam. Go forth and test! Another value-added piece of the customer-service puzzle to retain or gain customers. We gained a fair number of new customers as a result of being on the list of local certified backflow testers.
Suddenly we found it necessary to enter a great many more pits than we'd ever encountered, and it occurred to us that we too were taking unnecessary CSE risks. Confined spaces can be divided into three basic categories: tunnels — where a buddy system utilizing two-way radios (not cell phones that might lose their signal) can be used; non-permit-required spaces — like most of the pits we enter to test backflow preventers; and permit-required backflow pits where a hazardous environment is either present or likely to be present.
Common sense rules the day. CSE requires a series of steps. Test the air quality, using a four-gas analyzer that measures for combustible gasses, oxygen level, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide. The cost is $1,262 for this four gas detector kit, www.grainger.com/Grainger/items/4EU11.
We quickly discovered that about 10% of the pits we encountered were too low in oxygen for safe entry. In addition to a digital read-out on the 4-gas tester, an audible alarm lets you know it's a no-go. One pit in particular we nicknamed the Widow Maker because it consistently registered zero-oxygen every time we visited it to test the twin backflow preventers.
Although it was a shallow 4-ft. pit and a gray-area for CSE classification, it was necessary to break-the-plane between safe outdoor air and the zero-oxygen air in order to remove the six test-port caps and connect the three high-pressure test hoses. Repeat the entry for hose connections on the second backflow test, and enter a third time to disconnect, restore flow by opening the downstream valves, and screw all six caps back on the test ports to prevent contamination between yearly tests. I tried holding my breath (we were ventilating and had 21% oxygen in the pit) to see if it was reasonably feasible to perform the work and stand back up to once again breathe air outside this shallow pit — no dice. If you don't test you can't know — in advance of a collapse and possibly dying.
Here's a kicker: CSE requires you have a trained attendant to observe the person entering and they are not permitted to enter the pit if a problem arises. They are, instead, to call 911 and stand by until certified rescue personnel arrive and only the trained rescue personnel may enter the confined space.
Any oxygen levels below 19.5% or above 23% are a no-go. Our Widow Maker pit at 0% could kill a healthy person within 40 seconds. We've encountered other pits that hit 0% or came close, and they aren't the same each year. Grass clippings and mulch have ended up in pits to decompose and deplete oxygen. Nearby vehicle emissions have also impacted pits. In every case, we have been able to restore safe oxygen levels by ventilating. Any confined space that fails a test is continually ventilated and all CSE we perform is continually tested before, during, and as long as the pit access remains open.
CSE steps continue in next month's column with required gear and a few eye-openers, regarding who bears responsibility based on an OSHA interview.
Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected].
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