Confined Space Attendants – More than just a “Hole-Watch”


Whenever I go out into the field for a rescue stand-by job, I always take note of the attendant.  I will always talk to them in order to try and gauge this person’s level of knowledge about confined spaces in general as well as the particular entry that is being made.  Unfortunately, more often than not, I discover that this worker has very little experience or very little training in confined spaces.  Most of these workers tend to be the “low-man” on the work crew and seem to just be “thrown” in to that position.  A lot of the facilities and contractors seem to have the attitude that anyone can be the “hole-watch.”  This can be the major ingredient in a recipe for disaster.

When OSHA created the Confined Space Regulation (29 CFR 1910.146) they included a list of the “roles and responsibilities” of the Entrant, Attendant and Entry Supervisor.  A cursory glance at the responsibilities of the attendant paints a picture of someone who is acutely tied to the overall safety of the operation.

These are some of the highlights of the attendant’s duties:

  • Know the hazards that may be faced during the entry, as well as the effects of those hazards
  • Monitor conditions inside and outside of the space
  • Call for the evacuation of the space in the event of an emergency or the detection of a prohibited condition

When you look closely at these duties, you’ll see that this is a lot more than just some “body” standing outside of the space.  For example, in order to monitor the conditions inside a space, most attendants are handed a two- or four-gas air monitor and sent out to the space to “sniff” the air inside.  The untrained or inexperienced “hole-watch” will likely not be aware of the numerous things that can affect the atmospheric testing results. Things such as the techniques used to calibrate the monitor, or the oxygen content of the air, or the concentration of certain gases can all skew the readings of a monitor.  I have also seen, on at least two occasions, a ventilation fan being placed within a few feet of a bank of gas-powered welding machines.  In one case, the carbon monoxide readings inside the space reached a high enough level to actually set off the alarms on the atmospheric monitor.  These are things that unqualified workers are simply not going to know about.

Not only do the attendants out in the workforce need to be better trained, they also should be brought into the planning phase of the entry operation.  The attendant should attend pre-job meetings as well as assist in the process of making the space safe for entry.  In one entry that I witnessed about 10 years ago, a very well qualified attendant was present.  The entry was into an underground vault that housed a large water main.  The entrants were installing a new valve into the system.  Because the attendant had helped shut down and isolate the space, he was familiar with the system in general.  Once the repairs to the valve were completed, a call was made to re-pressurize the line in order to make sure there were no leaks present.  The attendant ordered the entrants to exit the space while the pipe was brought up to pressure.  The entrants argued that they needed to be there to tighten up any leaks that might develop, but the attendant was adamant that they leave the space.  As the pressure in the line climbed higher, it ruptured and the entire vault filled with water in about 30 seconds.  It happened so fast that no amount of pre-rigging for rescue would have saved the two entrants.

A well-qualified attendant can have a definite impact on the entire project.  It is unfortunate that many times they are looked at as just some person standing outside the space – instead of a key component in the overall safety of the entry operation.

About the author:
Bryan Rogers is a Roco CSRT Manager in Baton Rouge.

About Rescue Talk

Rescue Talk is a group of seasoned rescue professionals and communicators providing relevant content to the rescue community, primarily through Roco Rescue OnLine. Rescue Talk and Roco Rescue OnLine are owned by Roco Rescue, Inc. These assets have been created as a resource for sharing insightful information, news, views and commentary for our students and other rescuers.
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9 Responses to Confined Space Attendants – More than just a “Hole-Watch”

  1. Ajeeb Backer says:

    I am very glad to see your valuable comments and suggestions.
    I am having a concern regarding the Air monitoring tests. Those Atmospheric monitoring tests requires to be undertaken by an ‘Authorised Gas Tester’ or any one can perform that? Is there any specific regulation for this or it will change according to the nation were we are staying or with the manufacturer of the Monitoring equipment.
    Please post your valuable suggestion regarding this.

    • Rescue Talk says:

      While we could find no specific amount of training required for atmospheric monitoring, it is imperative that these instruments be operated, and their data interpreted, by qualified individuals who are thoroughly familiar with the particular device’s operating principles and limitations and who have obtained the device’s latest operating instructions and calibration curves. As always, we encourage you to contact the manufacturer for additional information on training, use, care and maintenance of their product.

      Here is what we found in OSHA’s Permit-Required Confined Space regulation regarding proper procedures for atmospheric testing.

      OSHA 1910.146 Appendix B – Procedure for Atmospheric Testing:

      Atmospheric testing is required for two distinct purposes: (1) the evaluation of the hazards of the permit space; and, (2) verification that acceptable entry conditions for entry into that space exist.

      (1) Evaluation testing. The atmosphere of a confined space should be analyzed using equipment of sufficient sensitivity and specificity to identify and evaluate any hazardous atmospheres that may exist or arise, so that appropriate permit entry procedures can be developed and acceptable entry conditions stipulated for that space. Evaluation and interpretation of these data, and development of the entry procedure, should be done by, or reviewed by, a technically qualified professional (e.g., OSHA consultation service, or certified industrial hygienist, registered safety engineer, certified safety professional, certified marine chemist, etc.) based on evaluation of all serious hazards.

      (2) Verification testing. The atmosphere of a permit space which may contain a hazardous atmosphere should be tested for residues of all contaminants identified by evaluation testing using permit specified equipment to determine that residual concentrations at the time of testing and entry are within the range of acceptable entry conditions. Results of testing (i.e., actual concentration, etc.) should be recorded on the permit in the space provided adjacent to the stipulated acceptable entry condition.

      (3) Duration of testing. Measurement of values for each atmospheric parameter should be made for at least the minimum response time of the test instrument specified by the manufacturer.

      (4) Testing stratified atmospheres. When monitoring for entries involving a descent into atmospheres that may be stratified, the atmospheric envelope should be tested a distance of approximately 4 feet (1.22 m) in the direction of travel and to each side. If a sampling probe is used, the entrant’s rate of progress should be slowed to accommodate the sampling speed and detector response.

      (5) Order of testing. A test for oxygen is performed first because most combustible gas meters are oxygen dependent and will not provide reliable readings in an oxygen deficient atmosphere. Combustible gases are tested for next because the threat of fire or explosion is both more immediate and more life threatening, in most cases, than exposure to toxic gases and vapors. If tests for toxic gases and vapors are necessary, they are performed last.

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