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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Mike Cox says:

    The term “you get what you pay for” is certainly prevelant in this discussion. My company performs tank cleanings for various petroleum companies and far to often I find that the attendant is also the supervisor who may or may not always be at the entry point. He may also ask the vacuum truck driver to stand watch while he tends to something else. While our supervisors are well qualified they are also asked ot perform multiple duties. I have also found that because this is not a highly technicial job, the entrants also are not the most qualified and do not ask the simplest questions like, “what am I getting into?”
    Trying to educate all of the personel is frustrating because most don’t care or they fail to recognize the hazards. We as a standby crew work hard to ensure we are aware of the hazards and more importantly that the work crew is aware as well. Communication is key in all senarios.

    I look forward to more discussion like this. Thank you for the opportunity to share.

  4. I normally don’t write comments on posts, but your article urged me to commend your writings. Thanks for writing this, I’ll undoubtedly common your site and occur back once in awhile. Happy blogging.

  5. Well, I agree with what you wrote, but not with all of it. Regardless, it’s all good material. Thanks!

  6. Bryan Rogers says:

    When you’re dealing with temporary labor, it is difficult to ensure that they are well trained on something as complex as atmospheric monitoring. We checked with several equipment manufacturers, and they don’t set a specific amount of training time required. They leave this up to the customer’s internal policy and/or person(s) issuing the monitor. We also spoke to a few of our instructors who work at different plants and refineries. The majority of these companies require a company employee to perform the initial monitoring and then again after a break in work greater than 30 minutes. In addition, they review with the attendant what to look for and what to do if there are changes in the readings or an alarm sounds. One company provides a four-hour PowerPoint presentation on monitoring and attendant responsibilities. OSHA does not indicate a time frame for this training either. However, OSHA does require that persons be capable of safely performing the tasks assigned. I would say your best bet would be to cover as much of the manufacturer’s instructions as possible along with reviewing the most common problems such as…

    • Calibration conversions
    • Turning the monitor on or “field zeroing” the monitor in the presence of contaminates
    • Negative LEL or negative toxic readings
    • Contaminated sampling hoses
    • Clogged filters

    Lastly, I would stress the importance of asking the supervisor if they have any questions or concerns, and if they get any unusual results from the monitor… “Do not hesitate to have everyone exit the space while the results are investigated!”

    For your reference, here’s an OSHA link concerning atmospheric testing…

  7. Jeff Machen says:

    I am struggling with how much training to give attendants on air monitoring equipment. Do you have any recommendations? What do others do? Sometimes these people only work for us for a one week shut down. Have a good day Brian.

  8. KG says:

    Thanks so much for your comment, Tom. Using this forum, we’re hoping to continually remind rescuers of the dangers of confined spaces – and the importance of taking all safety precautions very seriously. Thanks again – and stay safe out there in NM! Kay G.

  9. Tom Romero says:

    I am glad to have a news and views forum for rescue. I hope you get many replies and that it serves as a source of on-going education for all of us who work in this dangerous field of employment. I have also seen, all too often that the “hole watch” is a job given too little concern. I have shared your experience of finding, the people serving as “hole watch” are under trained and inexperienced. I look forward to the next installment of this news forum.

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