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Sometimes workers will be very certain they are working in a confined space; places such as storage tanks, silos and sewers, or any enclosure with limited access openings, will immediately be identifiable as a confined space. However, some sites may be less obvious; for instance, an open-topped chamber, open-topped pit, large scale ducting or any congested space with reduced air circulation can be deemed a confined space.

A significant number of accidents take place each year when workers are carrying out tasks in such spaces. These accidents are most common in the farming, mining and sewage industries, or in the port and dock sector.

The RIDDOR fatal injury statistics from 2016/17 to 2020/21 show that 24 working people died as a result of drowning or asphyxiation and 134 workers were killed by being trapped by something collapsing or overturning – this includes trench collapse. In 2018 ROSPA said that “a number of people are killed or seriously injured in the UK each year in confined spaces. Health and safety training will enable employees working in confined spaces to get the job done safely.”

Regulations are in place to help prevent such accidents. The main piece of legislation is The Confined Spaces Regulations 1997.

The definition of a confined space

The Regulations define a "confined space" as any place, including any chamber, tank, vat, silo, pit, trench, pipe, sewer, flue, well or any similar space in which, by virtue of its enclosed nature, there is a risk of either:

    • serious injury arising from a fire or explosion
    • loss of consciousness arising from an increase in body temperature
    • loss of consciousness or asphyxiation arising from gas, fume, vapour or the lack of oxygen
    • drowning
    • asphyxiation arising from a free flowing solid substance or the inability to reach air due to being trapped by the solid substance.

What must employers do?

The Regulations place specific duties on employers, who must ensure that all other possible methods of doing the work are exhausted - i.e. that the work can be done from the outside if possible – before allowing the work to go ahead.

If work has to be carried out in the confined space then there must be a safe system of work in place.

This means that a risk assessment must be carried out before entry to the enclosed space is permitted. This will determine the "safe system of work" and appropriate emergency and rescue arrangements. Before any work is carried out there must also be emergency arrangements in place.

HSE warnings

In July 2004, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) issued an urgent warning following a spate of deaths involving confined spaces, which happened in quick succession over four months.

In one incident three workers on a farm near Thetford, Norfolk, died as a result of being overcome by carbon dioxide while working in a slurry tank, a fourth worker, who was also overcome by fumes was rescued from the tank.

In Hereford, two workers died while working in a 'pit' used in manufacturing and associated with a high-pressure special atmosphere furnace. The workers died due to "lack of oxygen".

Two months earlier, a worker in West Thurrock, Essex died during an incident which occurred as he welded the inside of a petrol tanker.

Do you need to speak to a personal injury solcitor in Scotland?

If you have been involved in an accident where you were working in a confined space then you may be eligible for compensation. Call our No Win No Fee lawyers today for FREE legal advice today on 0800 0891331.

More information can be obtained from the Health & Safety Executive by clicking here.

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