A hole-watch person attending a permit-required confined space is not only critical for the safety process of any entry, it is an OSHA requirement. This employee must manage and monitor all entry points, while effectively communicating and responding to onsite needs.

Safety issues can arise when this position is improperly staffed. Part of the challenge in pinpointing highly qualified hole-watch personnel stems from refinery owners’ habitual operational practices and tight budgets. These efforts to curtail pay rates also net lower caliber safety professionals.

Quality manpower companies work hard to develop employees who they’ve personally trained and vetted. Still, there’s no way to eliminate the truth that this team of hole-watch personnel is generally less qualified than other safety professionals — a fact reflected in their pay.

At the end of the day, “you can’t calibrate a person.” It’s tough to expect professionalism, 100 percent accuracy and high levels of dependability from people on temporary assignment, and when it comes to safety, you can’t take risks.

OSHA requirements of confined-space attendants

Nearly 1.6 million employees enter confined spaces every day, according to OSHA. OSHA 1910.146(b) defines a hole-watch or confined-space attendant as an “individual stationed outside one or more permit spaces who monitors the authorized entrants and who performs all attendant’s duties assigned in the employer’s permit space program.” This position requires attentive and actively engaged personnel.

Short-term hole-watch positions raise the question: do these personnel have the necessary knowledge and skills? Some believe that the solution is an intensive training class that will transform the struggling group into responsible safety professionals who:

1. Monitor activities inside and outside the space

2. Continuously maintain an accurate count of authorized entrants and ensure the means used to identify authorized entrants under paragraph (f)(4) of 1910.146 accurately identifies the entrant

3. Know the potential hazards faced upon entry

4. Explain awareness of possible behavioral effects of hazard exposure

Impact of short-service employees

One solution is to incentivize more qualified employees with higher pay, but refiners are accustomed to the lower pay rates and bid parameters, which ultimately eliminate a talented labor pool. Additionally, a highly trained safety professional typically isn’t excited to monitor an entry for 8 to 10 hours a day for a month straight.

Onsite hole-watch personnel are generally not full-time employees, which leads to questions about the validity of their TRIR since these rates are not necessarily linked to the crew for upcoming jobs. This position’s transient nature continually exposes companies to incidents. Increased incident rates affect your EMR, which directly impacts the premiums paid for workers’ compensation insurance and cuts into the bottom line.

Next generation hole-watch

The best solution is a solid investment in a smarter way of working. Confined Space Entry Monitoring Systems (CSEMS) are the next-generation hole-watch. Companies that place a system at every entry will rest easy knowing the following safety checks are in place:

  • Monitoring the space and all entrants, inside and outside, with a time-stamped video
  • Verifying and recording each entrant’s qualifications to allow or prevent access
  • Capturing gas detection settings in real time with activity footage
  • Affording oversight by highly trained professionals with communication to supervision and rescue services

The highly trained operator possesses keen insight into the work behaviors and impact of all environmental conditions. Additional access to foremen, supervisors and stand-by rescue teams enables a quicker response from emergency support. CSEMS capture all data and employee activity, which eliminates “hole-watch headaches.”

Using two sample* companies on a 21-day turnaround, with two shifts running 7, 12s, the estimated daily bill rate for an attendant is $470, which includes labor rate ($30/hr), per diem ($35) and lodging ($75). For one shift alone, the chart at the top of this page reveals the savings.

The chart indicates that the cost savings in labor alone is approximately 19 percent. The sample shows only one 12-hour shift. If the turnaround requires 21 days with two shifts per day, that would represent 42 shifts. The labor savings for 60 hole-watch personnel would estimate at $147,000, while the savings for 300 hole-watch sums at $756,000. Near miss observations estimate at 10 times the normal project, due to better visibility inside the space. This provides better overall safety direction moving forward.

The program starts to pay for itself at about 20 hole-watch attendants per shift. But again, that savings is labor only, notwithstanding the improved efficiency and enhanced safety management.

Innovation and risk mitigation

Many safety services companies vie for the opportunity to share their version of this system, and it’s critical to be tied to organizations that demonstrate:

  • A deep and proven legacy of research, development and implementation of this equipment and system
  • A track record of successful execution of the equipment and system
  •  A QA/QC program on the R&D side to ensure customers receive year-over-year improvements
  • An established SOP for full turnaround implementation that ties this equipment and its processes with highly trained operators, and the CSEM system to your other safety services programs
  • Ability to annually invest into this system to ensure that their technologies are the safest and most effective for your turnaround

A solution for this manpower demand must help clients accomplish three things:

1. Manage risk through highly trained entry operators with complete wraparound processes and data for each unit

2. Control safety-related costs by displacing hole-watch personnel and associated per diems, hotel, and transportation costs with additionally reduced incident rates

3. Increase time-on-tools’ productivity by automated processes for all gas monitoring, equipment check-in/-out, and fluid work processes for each unit entry

Times are changing and wisely integrated technology helps the industry evolve for the better.