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Confined Space Rescue

Published: 01st Sep 2012 in OSA Magazine

Scott Goodwin brings the weight of 29 years’ experience as a firefighter to describe essential confined space management strategies.

Case studies

1. May 8, 2010, Middletown, OH – A worker conducting a non-entry inspection of a manhole was incapacitated and fell into the hole. Moments later, two workers lowered their Captain into the hole to conduct the rescue. All three workers are overcome and nearly perish in the botched rescue. The original victim dies.

2. May 26, 2010, Liberty Township, Indiana – A worker is overcome and collapses
in a ten foot deep pit. A civilian attempts the rescue only to be overcome as well. Two Liberty Township firefighters arrive on the scene and attempt a rescue and are also overcome. The original victim dies.

3. September 6, 2010, Tarrytown, NY – A worker is incapacitated in a manhole and a rescue attempt is made by a firefighter. Both the victim and the rescuer die from exposures in the confined space.

What is the common denominator here? Failed rescue attempts.

The rescuers obviously felt that they were doing the right thing when entering into the confined spaces to perform a rescue. Allowing your emotions to control your response to a situation is dangerous, and many times deadly. We must use our heads and think through the problem – use our skills and talents to find a solution, and not become a part of the problem.

I know it is easier said than done but NOT entering a confined space to do a rescue may be the smartest thing to do. After all, if you go down, who will rescue you?

I am a Lieutenant firefighter with more than 29 years of service. My service is not only in firefighting, but also in technical rescue. I am also a member of SUSAR (State Urban Search and Rescue) team with cross training in confined space, trench, high angle, structural collapse and swift water rescue.

Firefighters typically do not receive technical rescue training during their careers; it is an extra commitment to receive the training. Technical rescue training takes time above and beyond the normal training requirements and is typically 40 hours each for the technician level.

Firefighters look at that extra time commitment as a burden and many decide not to pursue it. Unfortunately though, the public perception of a firefighter is that ‘you can help them, right’? This may or may not be the case and can lead to devastating results, just like in the incidents cited earlier. Firefighters will almost always attempt to do a rescue even if it is beyond their level of training. Who are you willing to leave behind?

Making an appropriate response

If a person is in need of rescue from the water, it is a water rescue. If a person is injured in a vehicle it is called a vehicle rescue. So one would think that if a person is injured in a tank, manhole, vessel, pit or other confined space that you would have a confined space rescue – and you do. Regardless of atmospheric monitoring, the incident still occurred in a confined space.
confined space rescue
The May 8, 2010 incident came in as a response to a worker who had fallen. Upon arrival the Officer in Charge should have identified immediately that the worker had fallen inside a manhole. A manhole is always a confined space.

In a confined space rescue, some common denominators should be established. Air monitoring, fall protection for rescuers, retrieval methods, traffic and any other hazards of the space that could be present should always be identified and addressed prior to any entry. We must size up the situation and identify hazards at confined spaces just like at vehicle accidents, structure fires or any other situation.

Hazard identification

Atmospheric hazards are invisible most times. This is not Hollywood and we don’t have nice green clouds floating inside the space showing you ‘I am toxic, stay away’! Carbon Monoxide alone is a huge problem and as we all should know is colourless, tasteless, odourless and undetectable without the use of an air monitor.

Oxygen deficiency can occur due to many reasons and again is colourless, tasteless and odourless. The effects of oxygen deficiency are instant and will incapacitate a person immediately. It should be mandatory for responders that every confined space has the atmosphere monitored before an entry is made, even if the worker is conscious and talking.

The monitoring must be performed prior to entry and during entry for all rescues in order to ensure it is not only safe to enter but also safe to work in. Most common atmospheric hazards can be attributed to oxygen deficiency, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and flammable atmospheres such as methane or natural gas.

A simple blower can do wonders to provide a fresh air supply into the confined space and ‘turn the air over’, removing or minimising the hazards. Atmospheric monitoring of all confined spaces is nevertheless a must, and should never be dismissed as the conditions can change instantly.

All three rescues mentioned would not have been so tragic had the rescuers simply monitored the atmosphere before allowing a rescuer to enter the space. I realise that many departments don’t have the resources, abilities and financial backing to teach a 40 hour confined space technician course, but awareness training is simple.

In about two hours anyone can be taught how to identify a confined space and determine the possible hazards of the space. At that point everyone should be able to identify a hazardous situation and know when to call for help. The bottom line is that awareness training is simple, cheap and should be a tool in the firefighter’s bag of tricks.

Not having awareness training is no excuse today, especially when we are called to perform all sorts of rescues and not just fires.

So the real question is this: if a tanker truck overturns in your area and is spilling a liquid on the ground, and the driver is out of the truck lying in the middle of the road, would you approach it?

I guess your answer will determine the next phase of training needed, or, at best, will determine if you are on the right track to protecting yourself, your crew and the lives of civilians; just like we were commanded to do as firefighters.

This sentiment is applicable to numerous industrial contexts, where employers have a Duty of Care for their workforce. It is inexcusable to permit workers to die from ignorance.

What can go wrong in confined space rescues?

Recently, we have all seen the media attention on some of the confined space rescues that have gone wrong. From May 2010 to September 2010 there were three high profile confined space rescues that resulted in three workers perishing, six injured rescuers and one fatality of a rescuer.

So what went so horribly wrong that in these three incidents so many lives were disrupted?

Bad atmospheric conditions appear to be the culprit in each of these cases. The unfortunate part is that these incidents could have possibly been prevented. Had the atmosphere been monitored in these three cases alone, maybe we could have prevented the six injuries and one fatality.

We must not tolerate the mentality of ‘risking a life to save a body’. This may sound cruel but at this point we are not even sure if we have a rescue or a recovery. Think before you react and solve the problem.

A rescue is defined as ‘to free from confinement, danger or evil’. OSHA expects that a rescue should be typically conducted within four to six minutes by most interpretations.

For fire and rescue services, it is nearly impossible to receive an emergency call, respond, size up the scene, set up equipment and conduct an effective rescue within four to six minutes. As a result, employers who rely on the fire department as their confined space rescue team may be in violation.

OSHA mandates in the 1910.146 standard for confined space rescue that the rescuers must be evaluated and meet certain criteria to even be qualified as the rescue team. If those criteria cannot be met the employer would be forced to provide a site rescue team or bring the responding team into compliance.

As a fire officer, I can count on one hand the number of times an employer has contacted us to determine our rescue abilities at their confined space work area; yet the fire and rescue team will still respond and attempt a rescue, risking their lives because that is what is expected. Where did we go wrong?

Practical solutions

A simple four gas air monitor can identify what we cannot see, possible hazardous atmospheres. Workers are required to monitor the atmosphere prior to entry and so should the rescue team.

Since the atmospheric conditions can change instantly, what might have been safe five minutes ago may now cost you your life. Monitoring initially will tell you what the current conditions are in the space. Monitoring continuously will tell you any changes that may occur while you are conducting the rescue.

Continuous air monitoring is critical to identify the problem before it becomes a danger to you, which in turn allows you to exit the space quickly and safely. All too often though, we monitor the space initially, then put the monitor away thinking that everything is good.

Remember, how quickly the atmosphere inside a confined space can change? Instantly!

These simple procedures should apply to workers in the space or a rescue team needing to do entry.

After the atmosphere inside the space is tested we need to ensure that it stays in a safe range. Blowers mentioned earlier can be electric or gas, with the better of the two being electric.

If you do use a gas blower consider a Carbon Monoxide (CO) monitor at the air intake to ensure that no Carbon Monoxide is being pulled into your fresh air supply. Your goal here is to provide as much fresh, non-contaminated air as possible into the confined space, and hopefully turning the atmosphere inside the space over at least one time.

With a blower providing fresh air and continuous air monitoring we should have better control of the atmospheric hazards of the confined space. While all this is taking place your team should be getting their gear out and ready, setting up the equipment, preparing the rescuer, preparing for medical, controlling other possible hazards, securing the area and maintaining control of the situation. It is crucial with timing to multi task the atmospheric monitoring along with the other setup duties to expedite a rescue.


Controlling the atmosphere is the most important part of all confined space entry work. This is the main hazard that kills most workers and rescuers. This is also the most difficult to identify and the most widely forgotten due to the lack of being able to see the danger.

You are called to a rescue of a worker in a tank and upon arrival you find a mid 30s male lying face down in an empty space and, by observation, hazard free environment.

What you don’t see is the atmospheric hazard and soon find out the tank is oxygen deficient. Are you the next victim? Workers and rescuers, employers and owners, entrants and attendants all must aggressively manage and control the atmospheric hazards of a confined space. Your life depends on it, your rescuer’s life depends on it, and your family depends on it. 

Published: 01st Sep 2012 in OSA Magazine


Scott Goodwin

Scott Goodwin, COSS is a 29 year Lieutenant Firefighter with Ballville Township Fire Department in Fremont OH, and is a member of SUSAR Region 1 for Northwest Ohio. He is also the Director of Confined Space Training Services offering confined space entry training, rescue training and standby rescue services to businesses and the fire service all over the United States, using classroom training and hands on training with a mobile simulator. Goodwin is the Director of Safety and Training for the AGC of Northwest Ohio and the National Electrical Contractors Association of Southeast Michigan and Northwest Ohio. These positions allow him to work with almost 220 Union construction companies representing more than 9,000 trade people and another 3,000-5,000 staff. Goodwin is also the Director of CSTS Global, which is a full service safety consulting company providing full services and professional support to industry, construction, manufacturing, mining and emergency organisations. CSTS Global is home to a mobile confined space simulator and fall rescue simulator that teaches classroom and hands on classes on confined space entry and rescue, along with fall protection and rescue. Goodwin has conducted classes and assisted many ‘Fortune 500’ companies all over the United States. Goodwin has a Bachelor’s degree in Safety Engineering from Fairmont State University in Fairmont, West Virginia where he was born and raised. He has been involved in construction safety since 1993, starting with the Division of Safety and Hygiene Bureau of Workers Compensation, then working for Mosser Construction, Inc as the Senior Field Safety Officer before coming to the AGC. Goodwin is responsible for implementing multiple safety trainings, audits of projects, programme development and review, OSHA compliance assistance, OSHA inspections, company representation at informal hearings, accident investigation assistance and injury reduction reviews. He is a Certified Occupational Safety Specialist, OSHA 500 instructor, Mine Safety and Health Part 46 instructor, Medic first aid / CPR instructor, forklift and aerial lift trainer, respirator trainer and general safety instructor. He also conducts many public speaking sessions on various topics, speaking at Safety Days and company meetings. In addition, he provides consultation on numerous topics and expert witness testimony, or case review. Goodwin has written many published articles and works one on one with contractor members and other outside organisations assisting them in their safety needs, when needed. He is an active trainer and presenter in all businesses including general industry and manufacturing. As a fire officer, technical rescue team member, safety director and father, it is clear that safety is quite important to him.

Scott Goodwin





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