The attendant plays a critical role in the safety of a confined space entry. This role involves much more than standing around the opening to the confined space waiting for something to happen. Done correctly, the activities and responsibilities of the attendant, summed up in the following 14 descriptions, will catch developing issues early enough to prevent problems.

1) Prepare the space - The attendant should be involved in the preparation of the space from the beginning of the entry. Helping prepare the space for entry ensures that the attendant is familiar with all aspects of the space and the work to be performed.

2) Stay focused - One of the most important aspects of the confined space attendant is that being the attendant is a job, and it's the only job the person in this role should have. He is not there to be a runner for tools and supplies, prepare work materials or to do any other work crew task. He is also not on break. The focused attention of the attendant is necessary for him to fulfill his role successfully.

3) Know the substances - The attendant must be familiar with substances that the crew may be exposed to and the potential effects on entrants. Substances that may either exist in the space, be taken into the space by the crew or generated from the work process must all be considered. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) should be readily available to the work crew.

4) Know the symptoms - The attendant must be able to recognize signs and symptoms of exposure in the entrants so that prompt action may be taken. The attendant must also be aware of potential behavioral effects of exposure to substances. For example, overexposure to solvent vapors may cause the entrant to appear intoxicated.

5) Recognize hazards - The attendant must also be familiar with all other hazards associated with the space and the work to be completed. Hazard recognition is one of the attendants most essential roles. By identifying hazards early in their development the attendant can take action to correct the condition or call for the evacuation of the entrants.

6) Monitor activities - Part of the attendant's responsibilities is to monitor activities inside and outside the space. This attentive observation should be aimed at identifying changing conditions that may affect entrant safety early in their development so that they may be corrected or the entrants evacuated. For example, if someone parks a vehicle near the inlet to the ventilation fan and leaves it idling, the attendant must resolve this problem quickly to prevent exhaust gases from infiltrating the space.

7) Count heads - The attendant must maintain an accurate head count of entrants so that if an evacuation is necessary he can confirm that all of the entrants have left the space. The listing on the entry permit must indicate specifically who is inside the space by name. The attendant is responsible for maintaining this part of the permit during the entry. If additional crew members enter the space their names must be added to the permit. If personnel leave the space their names should be crossed off the permit.

8) Stay at your post - The attendant must remain near the opening but outside of the space. He must not enter the space for any reason, and he should never leave the outside area. If the attendant must leave then another individual must be assigned the attendant role while he is gone.

9) Maintain communication - Communications between the entrant and the attendant are essential throughout the entry. The attendant also requires a means to communicate with the entry supervisor and to call for help in case of an emergency. These communications must be maintained during the entire entry. If equipment such as radios or hard-wired systems are used for this purpose they must be tested prior to making the entry to ensure they are operating properly.

10) Guard the entry point - The attendant is responsible for ensuring that other activities do not interfere with the entry. Individuals not authorized to enter should be prevented from getting into the space. If an unauthorized person ignores the attendant and enters the space the attendant should have the entrants leave the space and contact the entry supervisor.

It's important to note that attendant responsibilities are not based upon the number of personnel working inside the space, so even if a relatively large work crew is inside only one attendant is required. In large or complex spaces with multiple entry points an attendant should be posted at each active entry point. For example, if work is being performed in a storm sewer and access is through two well-separated manholes, an attendant should be posted at each one.

11) Relieve the entrant - When things are going well with the entry the attendant's job can become routine and this may cause his attention to diminish. Periodically the attendant and entrant should swap roles to help minimize this issue. Another benefit of this approach is that the entrant is often in the more physically demanding role during the operation, and the switch to the attendant role allows a change in physical activity. Again, personnel should understand that the attendant role is not a break but a change of pace. For this swapping to be an option, your training of entry crews must qualify personnel for both entrant and attendant roles.

12) Make the call - If an emergency occurs the first responsibility of the attendant is to call for help. The call should be made to either an in-house rescue team or off-site responders, and it should be made prior to beginning retrieval efforts. The means for calling for help should be predetermined and tested prior to the entry. The attendant should be able to call for help from a location near the space.

13) Operate retrieval system - Once help is on the way the attendant can attempt to remove the entrants with a retrieval system, if one is in use. External retrieval should be used anytime it does not increase the hazard to the entrant and when it is practical. Properly used, the retrieval system should allow the attendant to remove the entrants from the space without entering.

14) Get rescue help - Entry rescue should never be attempted by a lone attendant. History tells us that oftentimes confined space incidents turn into multiple fatality situations because people who are not properly trained or equipped attempt rescues and become victims themselves. Even if the attendant is part of a trained rescue crew he must wait for that crew to arrive and be replaced in his role as attendant prior to participating in a rescue effort.

The attendant's role is important to the safety of confined space entry operations. Maintaining vigilance and taking prompt, effective action if problems develop can save the lives of the entrant personnel.

SIDEBAR: How's the air in there?

One of the tasks of a confined space attendant is to identify hazards that entrants might encounter. Confined space hazards can be grouped into four primary categories, three of which are atmospheric hazards and are the most difficult to identify.

1) Oxygen-deficient atmospheres - The oxygen level inside a confined space may be decreased as the result of either consumption or displacement. In a confined space, oxygen can be consumed during combustion of flammable materials, as in welding, cutting or brazing. It can also be consumed during bacterial action, during chemical reactions or as the result of oxygen displacement by other gases.

2) Flammable atmospheres - Flammable atmospheres are generally the result of flammable gases, vapors, dust mixed in certain concentrations with air, or an oxygen-enriched atmosphere. An oxygen-enriched atmosphere will cause flammable materials such as clothing and hair to burn violently when ignited. Combustible gases or vapors can accumulate within a confined space when there is inadequate ventilation. Gases that are heavier than air will accumulate in the lower levels of a confined space.

3) Toxic atmospheres - Toxic atmospheres may be present within a confined space as the result of one or more of the following:

  • The product stored in the confined space, which can be absorbed by the walls and give off toxic vapors when removed.
  • The work being conducted in the confined space, including welding or brazing with certain metals, painting, scraping and sanding.
  • Areas adjacent to the confined space, which may produce toxic fumes.

4) Mechanical and physical hazards - Problems such as rotating or moving mechanical parts or energy sources can create hazards within a confined space. Such equipment must be identified. Physical factors such as heat, cold, noise, vibration and fatigue can contribute to incidents.

Source: Oklahoma State University Environmental Health & Safety Dept.