Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The 60% Problem – Dealing With Confined Space Rescue Fatalities


We are currently conducting research for an article we’re writing on the topic of confined space rescue, and we thought we’d give you all a little sneak preview of our viewpoint on the topic.

A little background, a confined space is a space that is large enough to get in and do work, not designed for continuous human occupancy, and hard to get in and out of (difficult ingress and egress). Confined spaces are problematic, in my opinion, primarily because of the last part of the definition – hard to get in/out. If something is hard to get in and out of that means if an emergency happens you’re going to have a hard time evacuating and we’re going to have a hard time pulling you out. So any time sensitive emergency is made worse, simply because of the nature of the space. (See the OSHA regulations for more information about confined spaces, or go here for some confined space training).

So what’s the 60% problem? If you’ve taken a confined space training course, particularly if you’ve taken a confined space rescue course, you’ve heard an often thrown around statistic – that about 60% of the fatalities in confined spaces are would-be rescuers. If this statistic is true that means that more people are dying trying to be the rescuer than die actually doing the work!

There’s a number of reasons why this can be true, which are beyond the scope of this post. But, to give an example, one of our clients recently related an event that happened at one of their facilities where an employee was killed in a confined space. It turns out this employee was outside of a confined space when he noticed his co-worker was down (unconscious) in the space. So he went in to help…and then he went down. Luckily the fire department showed up and extracted them both. His co-worker lived. He didn’t.

Obviously this is a great tragedy, and we’re all left wondering why it happened. Unfortunately, like so many other “incident investigations” most people respond to stories like the above in a very simple way – more training! Employees just need to know that they shouldn’t do that! And this has been the response for the last 20 years - if we want employees to not be would-be rescuers then we need to just tell them not to during training.

Here’s the problem though – employees that are killed in confined space accidents like the one above are often trained. This means they were told to not do what they ended up doing! Why is that?

It turns out that a review of disaster and emergency psychology literature (which is summed up in another article that we wrote) tells us that the behavior of would-be rescuers is not only not strange, but it is completely predictable.

People are wired to help others in an emergency. This means that it’s not something we can easily train out of them! In an emergency your body is designed to react quickly. Your brain automatically resorts to default behaviors and does not allow for much in the way of rational thought. Therefore unless your training program is designed in such a way that you override the basic human instinct to help another its very likely to fail.

So what’s the solution? Prevention! We need to understand that confined spaces often have the potential for multiple injuries and fatalities because we have designed the system to include multiple workers (i.e. it’s illegal to enter a permit-required confined space with only one employee doing the job). This increases the severity potential of any confined space job, a potential that it’s unlikely we’ll be able to reduce without completely eliminating all hazards in the space. Attendants in confined spaces (often called “hole watches”) need to be reminded of their role in preventing confined space emergencies and the stakes if they don’t prevent an emergency. After all, the life they save may not just be the entrants, but their own!

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