Understanding who’s responsible for what is critical to keeping workers safe.
Every time your workers enter a permit-required confined space (PRCS), they’re trusting that your company and its managers and field supervisors have taken the necessary steps to keep them safe from being trapped, asphyxiated by converging walls or a sloping floor that tapers to a smaller cross-section, engulfed by a liquid or flowable solid, or impaired or overcome by a hazardous atmosphere.
But too often, companies aren’t clear about who’s responsible for various aspects of confined space safety on the worksite. OSHA has identified four key roles and the responsibilities each person must assume related to work in a PRCS. To prevent injuries and fatalities, workers and supervisors must be trained in the responsibilities of each role and take them seriously.
The entry supervisor is the gatekeeper, the person who must determine whether the PRCS is safe and acceptable to enter and ensure that those acceptable entry conditions are maintained. They must keep unauthorized people away from the space or make them leave immediately if they've entered.
An entry supervisor must be knowledgeable about the dangers workers could face when entering a PRCS, including those described above and other physical hazards, such as unguarded equipment and exposed live wires. In addition, they have to know the physical symptoms and behaviors that indicate a worker has been exposed to a hazard.
The entry supervisor has to endorse the permit for the confined space before anyone can enter it. That means they have to confirm that all the tests required by the permit have been conducted. If conditions become unsafe, the entry supervisor has to terminate the entry and cancel the permit.
Another important duty is to make sure the designated rescue service is available to assist if a problem occurs while people are working in the PRCS. They also must verify that their method of contacting that rescue service is operable.
The attendant is stationed outside the PRCS while workers are inside. Their job is to ensure that employees can safely enter and work within the space. They must remain at their post unless another properly trained attendant relieves them.
Like the entry supervisor, the attendant has to be familiar with any potential or existing hazards in the PRCS and symptoms that might indicate workers have been exposed to a hazard. They have to move any unauthorized people out of or away from the confined space.
Attendants work more closely with the people inside the PRCS. They must keep track of the number of workers in the space and stay in communication with them. They’re responsible for ordering workers out of the space if they see that a prohibited condition exists; if a worker shows symptoms that indicate exposure to a hazard; if there’s an emergency outside the confined space; or if they themselves can’t perform their required duties.
If there’s an emergency in the PRCS, the attendant is responsible for contacting the rescue service. If the employer’s rescue procedures call for it, the attendant may also attempt to rescue workers, without entering the space, using a retrieval system.
The same person can serve as both the entry supervisor and the attendant, but only if that person is trained and equipped for both roles and if their duties as an entry supervisor don’t interfere with their duty as an attendant.
Authorized entrants are the workers who are authorized by the entry supervisor to enter the PRCS. Like the entry supervisor and the attendant, they must know the hazards they might face and the symptoms that indicate they’ve been exposed to those hazards. They have to understand how to use any necessary personal protective equipment and make sure they use it.
Authorized entrants are required to keep in touch with the attendant and let them know if they see a dangerous condition or signs or symptoms that could indicate there’s a hazard in the confined space. If the attendant instructs them to leave the space, or if they hear an automatic alarm that indicates a problem, they must exit the space promptly.
Emergency rescue personnel
Companies that have people working in a PRCS must have a rescue team or emergency service that can arrive at a moment’s notice, and they must inform them of any hazards that exist in the space. It can’t be just any team or service; the responders must understand the hazards involved in a PRCS and be capable of reaching trapped workers in a timely manner. The employer who hired the people to work in the PRCS has to verify that the rescue service has the necessary personal protective and rescue equipment, including respirators, and that they’ve been trained in how to use it.
All rescuers must have first aid and CPR training, and at least one rescue team member must have certification in both. Rescuers must participate at least once a year in practice rescue exercises.
Keeping workers in permit-required confined spaces safe is a team effort, and it’s crucial that every player know their role. The entrant bears the brunt of the risk and must know how to behave in the space, but the attendant must keep a watchful eye from outside, and the entry supervisor must make sure the space is safe to enter in the first place. For each role, training is key.
Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.