The dangers of working in confined spaces and how to overcome them

As we approach annual World Day for Safety and Health at Work on Thursday 28 April, we are again reminded of the dangers faced in the workplace, particularly for those in well known high risk occupations. The dangers faced in the workforce include among others, the dangers of working in a confined space. In fact, when compared with working outside, a confined space can increase the hazards and risks workers face by up to 150 times.

This is no surprise when considering that when employees undertake confined space work, they are entering an environment that is not intended for human occupancy. This means workers are exposed to a much greater volume of risks in this dangerous atmosphere than if they were working outdoors or in an office.

Another unfortunate statistic when looking into confined space incidents is the propensity for multiple fatalities – indeed according to De Vaney (1997, p22) when examining the dangers of working in a confined space in the US,  “other than vehicular accidents, more multiple fatalities occur during confined space entry work than any other type of work performed…”.

Here in Australia we rank better than most nations in terms of the number of fatalities in confined spaces:

Malaysia: 1,396 fatalities (Year 2010)

USA: 350 fatalities  (Years 2000 – 09)

UK: 29 fatalities  (Years 2003 – 11)

Australia: 8 fatalities  (Years 2003 – 11)

However there is always more we can be doing to reduce the alarming statistics.

What is a confined space?

According to Safe Work Australia (2016), a confined space is determined by the hazards associated with a set of specific circumstances and not just because work is performed in a small space. This includes an enclosed or partially enclosed space that is not designed or intended primarily to be occupied by a person.

Examples of confined spaces can be found in a wide and varied number of places and include tanks, vats, silos, bins and vaults and there are also a number of less obvious, but no less dangerous spaces, such as open-top tanks and vats and closed and unventilated rooms. In many of these spaces, heavier than air gas can be present and restrict air circulation – even with a door left open.

What are the risks when working in a confined space?

There are significant dangers of working in a confined space because they are usually not designed to be areas where people work. These spaces often have poor ventilation which allows hazardous atmospheres to quickly develop, especially if the space is small. Moreover, the hazards faced are not always obvious and may change from one entry into the confined space to the next.

According to Safe Work Australia (2016), the risks of working in confined spaces include: „

  • Loss of consciousness, impairment, injury or death due to the immediate effects of airborne contaminants „
  • Fire or explosion from the ignition of flammable contaminants „
  • Difficulty rescuing and treating an injured or unconscious person
  • Asphyxiation resulting from oxygen deficiency or immersion in a free-flowing material, such as grain, sand, fertiliser, water or other liquids.

What are the mistakes that can cause confined space incidents?

According to Fire & Safety Australia (2013), there are 5 fatal mistakes of confined space entries:

  1. Inadequate confined space entry training: ‘Inadequate confined space entry training’ was cited as the main factor for 92% of confined space fatalities* in the last 15 years*
  2. Inadequate supervisor knowledge and supervision: The second main factor attributed to confined space fatalities was ‘inadequate supervisor knowledge and supervision’ in over 90% of cases
  3. Lack of having ‘appropriate confined space procedures in place: A lack of having ‘appropriate confined space procedures in place’ was also a factor for 85% of organisations that suffered a confined space fatality
  4. Attempting to rescue injured personnel from within confined spaces: Internationally, 60% of confined space fatalities have occurred when personnel have tried to rescue injured personnel from within confined spaces
  5. Contractors: Contractors who work within confined spaces make up 60% of fatalities within confined space statistics

*In the last 15 years in Western Australia

How can the dangers of working in a confined space be minimised?

According to Fire & Safety Australia (2013) there are a number of solutions that can be put in place to help reduce the dangers faced by those working in a confined space:

  1. Confined space training: Training can help reduce the risk of a confined space fatalities as employees learn the identification, hazards, risks and safety control measures applicable to confined spaces
  2. Confined space procedures: Having confined space procedures in place that suit your work environment can help reduce the risk of a confined space incident
  3. Confined space supervisory training: By providing regular confined space supervisory training for supervisors of confined space entries, the likelihood of an accident reduces
  4. Limiting the use of contractors: Contractors are at a far higher risk of incident than employees with a regular workplace (the assumption here is because of lack of familiarity with site specific confined space hazards)
  5. Confined space rescue training: Training in confined space rescue can reduce the risk of rescuer fatalities as well as ensuring safe rescue procedures are in place to follow to rescue injured personnel.

Michael O’Reilly, Harness CEO:

“Unfortunately we are continually faced in the media with news of fatalities linked to working in a confined space and often multiple fatalities are a common feature of this type of incident.

As the research shows, training is a key factor in minimising these risks somewhat and here at Harness we strongly advocate regular training every two years for anyone working or who may be required to work in confined space environments”.

Harness Confined Space Entry Training:


As a specialist in safety training, Harness offers a one-day course in confined space entry to help reduce the risk of a confined space incident at your workplace. Investing in relevant confined space training for your confined space workers and supervisors and ensuring that they have adequate confined space safety procedures in place can help reduce the dangers faced by those working in confined spaces.

Moreover, by providing your staff with confined space entry training, trained confined space supervisors and confined space safety procedures you will increase the knowledge of confined space safety within your organisation and you will improve the confidence and competence of your staff in conducting confined space work safely.

To find out more about Confined Space Entry training here at Harness, call us on 1800 HARNESS or e-mail: today.