Attempting any kind of rescue can be a daunting task. However, confined space rescue is a particularly dangerous proposition.

This is especially true when statistics show that more than 60 percent of those who die in confined spaces are the rescuers themselves. For this reason alone, a thorough knowledge of how to appropriately rescue someone in a confined space, in addition to recognizing what hazards can occur, need to be mastered.

“This remains one of the riskier rescues we do based on the hazards involved,” said Kent Freeman, president of California Health and Rescue Training. “There’s the atmospheric problems, the different positions we’re in. There’s no natural ventilation, so everything is compounded due to the artificial atmosphere. It gets tricky because it can sneak up on you.”

Freeman is an expert in many types of rescues, including confined space rescues. He teaches classes on this at the Sacramento, Calif.-based Safety Center where many come to receive instruction and the latest techniques on rescuing.

Everything in place

To prevent rescuer fatalities, OSHA has stated that all rescuers in confined space rescue attempts identify the hazards before starting the rescue and that a permit or checklist is performed and completed when entering the hazardous area.

By undertaking the permit or checklist, the rescuer has allowed for a systematic entry designed to ensure his or her safety while performing the rescue. Freeman added that much training needs to go into those who perform confined space rescues.

There are numerous elements that must be in place and adhered to before, during and after a rescue attempt in a confined space, including:
  • size-up of the incident;
  • atmospheric monitoring;
  • ventilation;
  • communications;
  • respiratory protection;
  • proper harness;
  • retrieval lines;
  • mechanical device;
  • lighting;
  • mandatory positions.

Step by step

The first is to size-up the incident, or take a step back and a good look at the reality of the situation. When thinking about confined space rescues, you must protect your own rescue team and identify what hazards could hamper the rescue, such as the use of the space — for what is it normally used, or what does it normally contain?

Don’t forget to ask the facility contact person for the initial entry permit, if available. This information could prove to be invaluable, but keep in mind, due to human error, sometimes not everything is written down or correct. It is just to be used as an initial guide.

With the top killer in confined space rescues being the atmosphere, it should come as no surprise that atmospheric monitoring is a mandatory component in rescuing. Monitoring of the atmosphere, according to OSHA, is to be done before the rescue attempt is begun and continually while you are in the confined space.

Atmospheric monitoring must be done at all levels due to the possibility of stratified layers of hazardous gasses. OSHA also clearly states that the readings be done in four-foot increments, starting at the top usually, and working your way down. Be sure to always record your results on the permit or checklist.

OSHA also requires that ventilation be a mandatory component of rescues. In order to ventilate, either a natural, forced supply, forced exhaust or a combination of forced supply and exhaust ventilation will be used.

The reasoning here is to keep the air clean for not just the victim, but also the rescuer, as it can “buy more time” in the rescue attempt and keep everyone alive.

OSHA likes to say, “If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.” This is in regards to entry permits. They must always be filled out correctly and thoroughly as they are legal documents. The permit must also be cancelled — signed and dated at the completion of the rescue — and filed for at least one year.

The next step, communications, is handled as a gray area by OSHA. While regulations do state that good communications must occur during a rescue, how they are done is not specified.

Communication plans that have proven to be successful have involved the use of portable radios, electronic hardwire systems, voice and hand signals, rope signals, light signals, personal alarm devices and tapping and rapping codes.

Just make sure any communications plans are identified during the pre-entry briefing.

As respiratory protection is not listed as mandatory by OSHA, it should in no way be overlooked. Because you are continually monitoring the atmosphere, you never know what kind of poisonous gasses to which you are being exposed.

If you wait for the readings to come back on your monitoring, it could be too late. Therefore, it is wise to be prepared and initially protect your respiratory system before you begin your rescue attempt.

While a Class III harness with the connection point at the top of the back, shoulders or above the head with a spreader bar is often used for rescues, the latest directives have given rescuers more latitude in what type of harness to use.

The rule of thumb is that the rescuer must be attached “in a manner such that if they were to become unresponsive, they would create the smallest possible profile in the opening.” This gives rescuers the flexibility to use the type of harness they think would be most beneficial for the operation.

According to OSHA, anyone performing a rescue in a confined space must be attached to a retrieval line. What OSHA’s thinking is a non-entry rescue should be attempted, whenever possible.

However, you can disengage from the line if it might lead to an injury or is impossible to keep it on. As an alternative, rope can be used, which allows for more flexibility and has other benefits.

A mechanical device needs to be in place in order to help hoist the victim when rescues are made at least five feet or more below grade. However, the type of device to be used is not specified by OSHA. But it needs to be there so the rescuer can perform a non-entry rescue.

Another element not directly mandated by OSHA but makes good common sense is lighting. It should be provided at the work site as the employer is required to have all equipment on-hand needed to complete whatever task is being undertaken. Just make sure it does not become flammable, of course.

At the bare minimum, the following positions must be staffed in order to perform a confined space rescue:
  • entry supervisor;
  • attendant;
  • entrant;
  • backup entrant.

Other positions that could ease the strain of performing the rescue include:
  • rigger to develop and manage the raise/lower system;
  • air supply officer to manage the respiratory system;
  • monitoring officer to manage the monitoring and documentation of such;
  • line tenders to manage all of the air, communications and retrieval lines.

No trade-off

The number one goal in performing confined space rescues is to successfully rescue the victim and bring the rescuer back to the surface safely. Just keep in mind it is never OK to trade a victim’s life for a rescuer’s, or vice versa. Every life counts and by following these safety rules, everyone should survive.