On-site worker rescue plan urged for confined spaces

Many employers are mistakenly relying upon public fire departments to rescue workers from confined spaces, such as water and sewer pipes, manholes and tunnels, according to an analysis by UC Berkeley health researchers of hundreds of deaths in the United States over 13 years.

Since fire crews need time to evaluate the hazards at a specific site, companies should instead have rescue personnel stationed at the entrance of potentially dangerous confined spaces who can pull workers out more quickly in an emergency, the study concludes.

The paper, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, arrives at the same time California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal-OSHA) is launching a statewide special emphasis program to prevent workplace deaths in confined spaces.

“Our findings show that employers have to take greater responsibility for putting together an effective, timely, on-site rescue program if they are sending workers into these kinds of spaces,” said study lead author Michael Wilson, director of the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health.”When something does go wrong, help from fire department crews can be a long ways off.”

For this study, the researchers analyzed 530 U.S. worker deaths from 1992-2005 that were due to toxic or oxygen-deficient atmospheres in confined spaces. They also obtained from urban fire departments in California data on fire crew arrival times and estimates of the length of time it would take to complete rescue of a victim from a confined space.

They found that the time needed for confined-space rescue operations – which includes extrication and initiation of advanced life support – ranged from 48 to 173 minutes. Even though the arrival time of the first engines averaged 5-7 minutes, firefighters need time to evaluate and control the hazard before they enter the confined space, the study said.

“A confined space emergency is a low-frequency, high-risk event for fire departments, and firefighters have to be careful not to become victims themselves,” said Wilson, who worked as a firefighter and paramedic for 13 years before joining UC Berkeley. He is also a member of Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 4 of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), housed at the Oakland Fire Department.

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By Sarah Yang