Earlier this week we posted tips for confined space rescue professionals. What about first responders that do not have any confined space training? Police officers are routinely the first-arriving responders at confined space incidents, even prior to EMS and the fire department. It is critically important that police officers understand the risks of entering confined spaces.
What is a confined space?
Confined spaces are defined by OSHA as spaces that are large enough to work in but have limited means of entry/exit and are not designed for continuous occupancy. Examples of confined spaces include manholes, storm drains, vaults, pits, tunnels, silos, storage bins, tankers, and many more.
What are the hazards?
The number one hazard in a confined space are atmospheric. In other words, things that you cannot see and most of the time cannot smell either! Approximately 66% of all fatalities in confined spaces are due to low oxygen levels (oxygen deficiency) or toxic gases. It is mandatory that the air inside a confined space is tested with a multi-gas detector before anyone enters the space! Other hazards include falls, drowning, electrocution, engulfment, hazardous material exposure, and more depending on the type of space.
Have police officers been injured or killed in confined spaces?
Yes! A police officer was killed in a 50-foot-deep underground pumping station after he went into the space to try and rescue a sewer worker. The police officer ended up drowning with the victim in raw sewage. Professional divers had to enter the confined space to recover the bodies.
In another case, a municipal water system operator was killed in a vault after he asphyxiated due to a low oxygen level in the space. Three hours after the incident a detective and a police officer arrived on-scene to investigate and were not informed that there had been an atmospheric hazard inside the space. Luckily, the air had improved some before they entered, and they were able to escape after suffering from shortness of breath and chest tightness.
What do I do with this information?
Do not enter confined spaces. Get more training. We now have a 1-hour Confined Space Awareness for Police Officers class approved for CLEE credit. Talk to your fire department and find out if they provide confined space rescue services. If you are asked to go below-grade or into an area with limited means of entry and exit, consider asking for a fire department response to help you assess the hazards on-scene. Remember, the primary hazard is atmospheric, and your nose is NOT an adequate detection device.
Do not be convinced by someone on-scene that it is okay to enter because they have done it a hundred times before. It only takes one instance for the air in the space to be bad for it to kill you.
Share this with your law enforcement brothers and sisters. Share it on Facebook or discuss it at roll call. Stay safe!
Owner / Lead Instructor
Elder Technical Rescue Services, LLC
Mention this blog post when contacting us to set up a confined space rescue class for your agency and receive a 10% discount on the cost of the class!