Confined Space Hazards on Small Vessels
A U.S. Coast Guard officer tries to open a sticking hatch while examining a commercial vessel. When it opens there is a barely perceptible rush of air into the space. The vessel master says that they recently put a new gasket on the hatch, and that is probably why it was sticking. The officer lowers an oxygen meter into the space. The alarm sounds before the sensor is halfway down, and registers less than 16 percent oxygen.
Was this a ballast tank on an oceangoing tanker, or the mysterious catacombs of some behemoth of the offshore industry? Not at all. This was a forepeak on a small tugboat in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. The compartment contained nothing more exotic than bosun stores and a little rust. I was a young Coast Guard officer, and came as close to death that day as any in my 28 years of service.
Deadly confined spaces are ubiquitous in the marine industry, including big ships, tugs and barges, commercial fishing vessels, and port infrastructure. Despite all manner of training, equipment, regulations and best practices, they continue to kill. A healthy dose of caution and above all leadership is needed to ensure that these spaces take no more lives.
Generally, a confined space is not designed for normal human occupancy and usually has other risk factors, such as poor ventilation, inward sloping walls/floors, limited means of entry and the potential for various atmospheric, electrical, and/or mechanical hazards.
Various chemical and biological processes can make the atmosphere in a confined space deadly. Rust, fire, drying paint or the decomposition of organic matter can consume oxygen, while oil/chemical fumes, carbon monoxide from internal combustion engines, welding/brazing gases or something as simple as a leak from a BBQ propane tank can displace oxygen and/or create a toxic, flammable or explosive atmosphere. Confined spaces may have exposed wiring, rotating machinery, steering linkages and the rusted knife edges of degraded structural members or the cowling around hatches. When was your last tetanus shot?
A relatively small decrease in oxygen results in impaired judgment and fatigue, so a person may not recognize the symptoms, make the best decisions or even have the strength to call for help. Larger decreases in oxygen can quickly induce coma and death in a matter of seconds.
It is likely that many of the people who enter confined spaces, including would-be rescuers, think that they are somehow immune to these effects. No amount of physical conditioning, mental preparation, or “holding your breath” can change the laws of chemistry and biology. If you enter an oxygen deficient space, you WILL be affected. If you are in the terrible situation of seeing a person incapacitated in a confined space, recognize that no matter your courage, the space will have the same effect on you. Call for help, get fresh air into the space if possible, but stay out.
Ashore and afloat, there are regulations and safe work practices for confined space entry. Follow them without fail. The fact that smart confined space entry procedures require tripods, hoists, instruments and breathing equipment should be enough to tell us that this is a serious matter.
While most confined spaces in any given work area are recognized, marked and controlled, the maritime world is a dynamic place. All too often, spaces previously considered safe become hazardous, and special activity creates some reason to enter spaces that may not manifest obvious safety hazards. Atmospheric hazards are especially tricky. Warning signs, such as the sticky hatch I noted years ago, are very much the exception, not the rule. In most cases, there are no obvious, easily detected warning signs.
Workers need to assume that any suspect space is unsafe until proven otherwise. In routine operations, complacency is our enemy. The fact that a space has always tested safe in the past must not allow us to forego rigorous safety procedures. When in doubt (and you should always be in doubt), trust your instincts. If a place looks risky, stay out.
Urgency and unusual situations are even greater threats. A break in routine is a warning sign. Pay attention. Accident investigators across all fields hear the phase “Well, normally we do X, but that day, we had to…” when conducting their post mortems.
Keep in mind that confined spaces aren’t going anywhere, and in most cases, neither should you. Slow down. Take the time to recognize and act on risk.
While most organizations claim that safety is the #1 priority, there is often a belief that the people at the top aren’t as fully committed as their words suggest. This perception creates the conditions that leads to deadly accidents. One way to demonstrate that commitment is an investment in technology. Drones, remote sensing instruments, new materials and predictive maintenance programs are reducing the need for humans to go into confined spaces.
If you have spaces that require routine entry, consider retrofits or technology solutions to eliminate the need for human entry. If you encounter an unusual situation that may require human entry, insist on a thoughtful operational risk management review, and consider technology options before sending in the people on your team.
While we need to take advantage of advances in technology, industrial hygiene and risk management, the basics of confined space hazards and safe work practices aren’t terribly complex. We’ve had the ability to address these risks for longer than most of us have been alive. We need only one thing more to keep our crews alive: A highly visible, sustained and sincere commitment to a strong safety culture by the most senior personnel in any organization.
Examine the space from outside the entrance. You may be able to see everything you need from outside the space, and don’t need to enter at all. Ask yourself what hazards might be in the space, and how to avoid them. Could there be fuel vapors, or containers of paint, solvents or other compounds that might displace the oxygen? Is there rust or decaying organic matter that might consume the oxygen? Any machinery that might be leaking exhaust into the space, or simply have unguarded moving parts that might take off your arm or crush your hand?
Ask yourself how you could help someone in the space if they were injured or incapacitated by an oxygen deficient or toxic atmosphere. Remember that if an unsafe atmosphere causes one person to pass out, it WILL have the same affect on anyone else who enters the space, unless they are wearing self contained breathing apparatus. Mental preparation, physical strength and holding your breath will make absolutely no difference, you will simply be the next victim. In fact, nationwide, something like one third of all confined space deaths are rescuers who either did not recognize the problem, or somehow thought themselves immune.
If you have any type of oxygen monitor or alarm, use it whenever in doubt. It won’t help you if it is left in the gear locker. Know the limitations of your equipment, and remember that alarms don’t generate oxygen. They may warn you of a hazard; they can’t make any space safe.
If you suspect a confined space may be hazardous, the best procedure is simply to not enter that space. No mission is worth your life. As far as I’m concerned, the Coast Guard can keep that Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance, I plan to collect retirement pay well into my 90’s, as I hope we all do.
Andrew Tucci is a retired U.S. Coast Guard officer.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.