Finding and Defining Power Plant Confined Spaces

Originally posted on November 8, 2014.

OSHA defines a confined space as a place with restricted access, or a place like a hopper with converging walls where you can get stuck. When the supervisors at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma were asked to identify the confined spaces their workers had to work in, there were a few spaces that ended up on the list that made some wonder if they had just picked up a case of lice…. In other words, they began to scratch their heads.

Earlier I wrote a story about when a person was engulfed in ash in a Precipitator hopper and almost died, (See the post “Tragedy Occurs During a Power Plant Safety Meeting“). This led to an investigation by OSHA a man from OSHA (See the post “OSHA Man Cometh“). Then we were fined and were given a list of tasks that we had to perform by August 1, 1994 (See the post “Power Plant Men Being Summoned by the Department of Labor“). One of those tasks was to create a Confined Space Rescue Team.

The first task for the Rescue team was to put signs on all the confined spaces with a warning that this was a confined space and that you weren’t supposed to go in there unless you have a Confined Spaces Entry Permit.

Confined Space Sign

Confined Space Sign

After that, the Confined Space Rescue Team was was tasked with developing rescue plans for each confined space.

One of the confined spaces on the list that was supplied by the supervisors at the plant was the Battery Room in the Main Switchgear. This was added to the list by Tom Gibson who was the Electric Supervisor for the plant. According to OSHA’s definition of a confined space, a room like the Battery Room, which you entered by walking through a regular door, didn’t meet the definition of a Confined Space even when trying to stretch the definition in imaginary directions.

The battery shown on the left is about the size of a small file cabinet

The battery rooms had batteries the size of the big one on the left

Tom Gibson explained that he wanted to add the Battery Rooms to the list because he thought that a dangerous conditiono could arise in the battery room if the ventilation fans failed and there was a build up of toxic gases from the batteries and someone walked in there and passed out. They would need to be rescued just as if they were in a confined space.

So, the Battery Room went on the list…. but the Confined Space Rescue Team decided that we weren’t going to create a rescue plan with much detail. We decided that we would just need to open the door and turn on the vent fan. Later, we were able to remove the battery room from the list.

It is interesting how some people come up with their justification for bending the definition of something like a confined space in order that the room would be considered a more hazardous place than normal. There were other ways to make this point besides trying to fit the big rectangular door into the size of a manhole cover.

When we put together the Confined Space Rescue Team, we had the Safety Task Force send out a intra-company letter to each person asking them if they would like to join the Confined Space Rescue Team. We wanted to get a good cross-section of people from different skill sets. I thought we did pretty good.

I can’t remember every one of the original member, but those that I can remember are:

Alan Hetherington, Jimmie Moore, Mike Vogle, Randy Dailey, Ray Eberle, Thomas Leach, Paul Mullon, George Clouse, myselft and um…. I can’t remember the last one. Maybe one of you can remind me.

Once we had the list, the first thing we had to do was to be properly trained as a Confined Space Rescue Team. A company in Dallas, Texas was hired to come to our plant to train us to become Confined Space Rescuteers (I just made that word up… Sort of like Mouseketeers).

While we were taking the training, the trainers kept calling the lead trainer “Dad”, so we began to wonder if this was a family affair. The leader of the training team was much older than the others, and he did treat the young trainers like a father. At one point when one of the trainers was trying to get the lead trainer’s attention, he kept saying, “Dad! Dad!” just like a little kid would try to ask their dad if they could go outside now and play. The rest of us just kept looking at each other like…. yeah… he’s their dad.

It turned out that Dad was really just his initials. His name is David A. David, so they just called him Dad. I thought that was pretty neat and fitting since he did treat them all like he was their dad. When I later moved to Texas, I found that David David is a rather popular name down here. It seems like people named David David own a number of car dealerships in the Dallas area.

We were given special rescue harnesses to wear that was a lot like a regular safety harness, except the place where you clip on to the rope is down at your waist instead of up by your chest. This put the point where you are suspended at the center of your weight (if you are built like your average rescuer… I mean, you don’t have a shape like Santa Claus…. which, if you did, you were probably more likely to be a rescuee instead of a rescuer).

Confined Space Rescue Harness

Confined Space Rescue Harness

With the focal point in the center of your body, you could easily swing upside down, lay flat or sit straight up. It was pretty neat. You have probably seen someone wearing one of these before…. Tom Cruise demonstrated this technique in the first Mission Impossible movie:

Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible using a rescue harness -- well sort of...

Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible using a rescue harness — well sort of…

We learned a lot of lessons in the Confined Space Rescue Team Training that I have never forgotten. One important statistic was that somewhere around 70 percent of people that die in confined spaces are would be rescuers.

If you stop and think about this number for a moment, it is rather shocking (if true). This meant that more people died trying to rescue someone from a confined space than actual original victims.

The reason this happens is because when someone in a confined space is found to have passed out, people tend to rush in there to pull them out, not realizing that the reason the person passed out was because there was some sort of toxic gas or a lack of oxygen in the confined space that caused the first victim to pass out.

I remember a tragedy when I was going to college at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri around the year 1980. I think it was at the Rolla campus where agriculture researchers had a large pit sort of like a deep empty swimming pool where they were doing some kind of experiment.

One of the people working on the project passed out in the bottom of the pit. Three other people in the area rushed down there to help the person. When they climbed down the ladder to help, each of them passed out, and all four of them ended up dead. There was some sort of poison gas that settled down in the pit that was fatal.

We knew then that it was important that we become properly trained as confined space rescuers. We have a culture in the United States to want to help someone in trouble. In some circumstances, a person could even be held liable if they don’t come to someone’s aid in an emergency. It is called a “Duty To Rescue”.

The problem with rushing into a confined space to rescuse someone is that you may actually be putting more lives at risk if you are not properly trained. The first tool we used when we arrived at a confined space was an Air Monitor.

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

We checked the quality of the air in a confined space for 4 different conditions. First, there had to be enough Oxygen (20.9% hopefully). Not too much Carbon Monoxide, No Hydrogen Sulfide (smells like rotten eggs, only if you smell it briefly and then the smell goes away, it could be because it deadens the receptors in your nostrils making you think you’re safe when you’re not — that’s why you need to use a monitor instead of just your nose). Lastly, we check for an explosive atmosphere. In order to make sure we aren’t crawling into some place that is ready to explode.

The first skill we learned was to tie knots. We actually spent a lot of time learning about knot tying. We had to be able to tie them while wearing rescue gloves. Those are leather gloves that keep you from burning your hand when you are feeding a rope through your hands.

Some of the Rescue knots we learned how to tie were the Figure 8, the Figure 8 on a Bite, and a Figure 8 Follow Thtrough. We also learned to tie a Prusik Knot that could be used to climb right up another rope like you were going up steps.

We learned to tie a Water Knot if we needed to extend the lengths of straps. Other knots were the Girth Hitch, the Double Fisherman’s knot, butterfly knot, and the right way to tie a square knot to make sure that you don’t end up with a granny knot and have your knot slip right off the end of the rope.

Rescue Knots

Rescue Knots

During the Confined Space course, we had to be able to tie these knots not only wearing our gloves, but we had to tie them behind our backs in the dark. After all, it was explained to us, that when you are rescuing people from a confined space crawling on your stomach wearing an SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus), you will not be able to see the knots you have to tie in order to pull someone safely out of the hole.

Man wearing an SCBA

Man wearing an SCBA

The trainers would inspect our knots and they had to be perfect, or he would take them apart and we would have to do them again. You couldn’t have one rope croxxing over another where it shouldn’t be, even if the knot was correct. The knot had to be picture perfect.”

“Dad” and the training company had a big black trailer that had a big metal maze where they could fill it with smoke. Then, they would put a safety manequin in the trailer somewhere and we would have to go in there wearing our safety equipment and rescue the dummy in the smoky dark maze during a hot summer day when it was about 100 degrees outside.

The most important thing we learned during that class was that even though our instinct is to go in and be a hero and rescue someone in trouble, we have to realize that the majority of the time when a person goes in a confined space to rescue someone they are retrieving a dead body.

The importance of this lesson is that it’s not worth risking the lives of the Confined Space Rescue Team when the person being rescued is most likely dead already. We needed to remember the statistic that 70% of people that die in confined spaces are would be rescuers.

As long as we kept that in mind, when the time came for us to dive right in and pull someone out, we would take the time to do it right and do it safely. What good is trying to rescue someone only to have our fellow rescuers die alongside the original victim?

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7 responses

  1. Yet another fascinating blog post as always 🙂 I had no idea that 70% of people who die in confined spaces are rescuer types or something close. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

  2. When people complain about regulations getting in the way of profit and productivity, I always try to understand why we have regulations in place. Most are the result of unfortunate circumstances and many are the result of people having died. I’ll give a hat tip and a quick prayer of thanks to the people in industry, and emergency services that train and drill to be prepared to risk their lives to save others. Thanks for another great post.

  3. When I was working at the Seminole Plant in Konawa, one of our electricians (Ken Doner) was found dead inside an underground fuel tank. He had bought a gas station on Hiway 99 and was welding by himself inside one of the storage tanks. This was so sad, so hard on his wife and family. But it demonstrated how important it was to follow safe work practices (even off the job). Thank God for all our trained and dedicated first responders. And thanks for another great story!

  4. Nice one! #VeryInformative!

  5. hello power plant men its dennis the vizsla dog hay i do not think i cud do this wurk the only konfined spayse i wil go into is my krate!!! ok bye

  6. The other person on the rescue team was Theresa Acedansky.
    I remember when they came out with the confined space at our powerplant, our wiseacre safety guy made a (gag) confined space procedure for the ELEVATOR and we totally bought it! It explained that it had limited entrance/egress, and that we had to fill out the appropriate confined space paperwork and have an air monitor and radio and a hole watch watch us get in at the desired floor, and another hole watch watch us get out when we arrived at our destination!

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