Hazardous Atmospheres in Confined Spaces

Add a note hereEntrants are in the most danger because of the many, often invisible, hazards associated with permit space environments. In order to properly identify the hazards of confined spaces, each space needs to be individually surveyed. By assessing the specific space, as well as the work to be performed, appropriate measures can be taken to avoid tragic incidents.
Add a note hereIn general, the hazards of confined spaces are categorized as either atmospheric or physical. Atmospheric is usually the most lethal because dangerous atmospheres are not always detectable through the senses. Also, the atmosphere in a confined space may be extremely hazardous because of the lack of natural air movement. This characteristic of confined spaces can result in:
§ Oxygen-deficient atmospheres, Add a note hereOxygen-deficient atmospheres,
§  Add a note hereFlammable/combustible atmospheres, and/or
§  Add a note hereToxic atmospheres.

Add a note hereOxygen-deficient atmospheres

Add a note hereNormal air has an oxygen content of 20.8 percent. An atmosphere is considered “oxygen-deficient” when there is less than 19.5 percent available oxygen. Any atmosphere with less than 19.5 percent oxygen should not be entered without an approved self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

Add a note hereWhen the oxygen level drops below 17 percent, an entrant may experience rapid breathing and an accelerated heartbeat. As the oxygen content decreases, other physical effects become evident including poor muscle coordination, rapid fatigue, and intermittent respiration, nausea, and an inability to perform tasks. At concentrations less than six percent, there is rapid loss of consciousness, and death occurs in minutes.
Add a note hereOxygen deficiency occurs from chemical or biological reactions which displace or consume oxygen from the space. Oxygen consumption takes place during:
§  Add a note hereCombustion of flammable substances as in welding, cutting, or brazing; and
§  Add a note hereBacterial action, such as in the fermentation process.

Add a note hereOxygen deficiency can result from bacterial action in excavations and manholes which are near garbage dumps, landfills, or swampy areas. Slow chemical reactions such as in the formation of rust on the exposed surface of metal tanks, vats, and ship holds will also consume oxygen in a confined atmosphere.

Add a note hereOxygen displacement

Add a note hereA simple asphyxiating atmosphere contains an inert gas (or gases) which does not produce any ill effects on the body. However, in sufficient quantity, an inert gas will displace oxygen and may result in an atmosphere unable to support normal breathing.

Add a note hereIf 100 percent nitrogen — a non-toxic, colorless, odorless gas — is used to displace the oxygen in a confined space, it would cause immediate collapse and death to an entrant if the confined space is not adequately ventilated before worker entry. Other examples of simple asphyxiants which have claimed lives in confined spaces include carbon dioxide, argon, and helium.

Add a note hereFlammable/combustible atmospheres

Add a note hereA flammable atmosphere generally results from the vaporization of flammable liquids, by-products of chemical reactions, enriched oxygen atmospheres, or concentrations of combustible dusts. For combustion to occur, three elements — oxygen, fuel, and heat — must be present in the atmosphere. In the right amounts, these elements create an unrestricted chemical reaction which produces a fire. If one of these elements is missing, or is not present in the appropriate amount, combustion will not occur.

§  Add a note hereFuel — a flammable gas, vapor, or dust
§  Add a note hereOxygen — to support combustion
§  Add a note hereSource of ignition — a sparking, heat, pressure, shock, or impact

Add a note hereThe proper mixture of fuel and oxygen varies from gas to gas. The flammability range for each gas is measured in terms of the lower flammability limit (LFL) and the upper flammability limit (UFL). Ten percent of flammable gas and vapor lower exposure limits is generally considered a safe level.

Add a note hereExample: The explosive range for methane is between five percent and 15 percent in air. Concentrations below five percent methane are below the explosive range (lean), and concentrations above 15 percent are too rich to support combustion. If a confined space contains 27 percent methane and forced ventilation is started, the introduction of air into the confined space may dilute the methane in air, taking it into the explosive range.

Add a note hereAn oxygen-enriched atmosphere (above 23.5 percent) will cause flammable materials, such as clothing and hair, to burn violently when ignited. Never use pure oxygen to ventilate a confined space — always ventilate with normal air.

Add a note hereToxic atmospheres

Add a note hereMost substances (liquids, vapors, gases, mists, solid materials, and dusts) should be considered hazardous in a confined space. Toxic gases may be present in a confined space due to the:

§  Add a note hereProduct stored in the space
Add a note hereThe manufacturing process uses toxic gases and the product may be absorbed into the walls of the space and give off toxic gases. Also, there may be biological or chemical processes occurring in the product stored in the confined space.
Add a note hereExamples: Hydrogen chloride and vinyl chloride monomerin are used in producing polyvinyl chloride. The product can be absorbed into the walls and give off toxic gases when removed; or when cleaning out the residue of a stored product, toxic gases can be given off.
Add a note hereRemoving sludge from a tank or sump — decomposing oganic material can give off deadly hydrogen sulfide gas.

§  Add a note hereWork being performed in the space
Add a note hereThe operation being performed in the confined space can release a toxic gas. Toxic gases may be created when acids are used for cleaning the interior of a confined space.
Add a note hereExamples: Hydrochloric acid reacts chemically with iron sulfide to produce hydrogen sulfide which is heavier than air and will settle out at the bottom of a confined space. Hydrogen sulfide is extremely toxic and exposure can cause paralysis of the olfactory system (making the victim unable to smell the gas), loss of reasoning, respiratory failure, unconsciousness, and death.
Add a note hereA welding, cutting, or brazing operation can cause the release of nitrogen, ozone, and carbon monoxide. Painting, scraping, sanding, degreasing can also cause the release of toxic gases.
Add a note hereCleaning solvents used in many industries for cleaning/degreasing produce vapors which are very toxic in a confined space. Solvent vapors cause unconsciousness by depressing the central nervous system. Some chlorinated hydrocarbon solvents, such as chloroform, have been used as anesthetic agents.
Add a note hereIn addition, certain chlorinated or fluorinated hydrocarbon solvents are toxic to the heart and have been associated with sudden death in confined spaces. Methylene chloride can be toxic in confined spaces both because of its solvent properties and also because it is metabolized in the body to carbon monoxide.

§  Add a note hereAreas adjacent to the space
Add a note hereToxicants produced by work in the area of a confined space can enter and accumulate in the space. Gases that are heavier than air may migrate across a work area and accumulate in the lowest level, such as a maintenance pit.

Add a note hereSome toxic gases such as phosgene or carbon monoxide are particularly insidious because of their poor warning properties. Toxic gases which have been reported to cause death in workers in confined spaces include carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide, arsine, chlorine, oxides of nitrogen, and ammonia.


Anonymous said...

A really excellent article and very comprehensive on confined space entry. This article is almost a class in itself! Correct Confined space entry is time-consuming and methodical. This is one activity where the employees need to be up on the rules in-depth. A comprehensive Confined Space safety program is necessary for best practices. There are several places where you can find safety programs. First, you can check with OSHA, or many states who run their own programs, for sample programs you may use or adapt. http://www.safetyplandownloads.com is a great site for safety programs for construction safety programs. http://www.cpwr.org is another good site with lots of information for craftworkers, and of course www.osha.gov 's site as well.

john said...

It is really good since there are now training programs for confined spaces training that can help people prepare for jobs that places them in such conditions. Those kind of courses will ensure that they can do the tasks required of them and that they keep themselves safe as well.

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