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Working safely in confined spaces

The Star Online, 19 April 2017
TAN SRI LEE LAM THYE - Chairman, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health

 

I REFER to the report “Two die after inhaling sewer gas” (The Star, March 18).

The tragic incident has again raised concern over the safety of workers in confined spaces which include storage tanks, tankers, boiler rooms, silos and other tank-like compartments with a manhole for entry and exit.

Other confined spaces include pits, pipes, sewers, tunnels, shafts, ducts and any shipboard space where entry is via a small manhole, cargo tanks, cellular double-bottom tanks, duct keels and oil tanks.

Hazards in confined spaces include poor air quality; chemical, biological, radiation and fire hazards; extreme noise and temperature; low visibility and process-related hazards such as residual chemicals.

Unfavourable natural ventilation can also compound the situation and it is the utmost responsibility of all employers to ensure the safety and health of workers and prevent any form of injury, illness or death arising from exposure to these hazards.

Those working in a confined space have to exercise great care and concern because it is more hazardous than regular work sites.

Workers who are injured or lose their lives are a loss not only to their employers but also the country as they are important contributors to economic and social development.

In the latest incident, where two men carrying out maintenance work in a manhole in front of a mall in Ipoh were overcome by sewer gas, causing them to suffocate, both the utility company and the contractor must be investigated to check whether they adhered to the rules and regulations stipulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) 1994.

They have to ensure that the workers were certified to enter the manhole and whether they followed the guidelines in the Industry Code of Practice (ICOP)

for Working in a Confined Space 2010.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has worked with the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) to set up the national standards for safety in work involving confined spaces, whereby a permit will be given to competent persons.

Workers who plan to enter a confined space must have the Authorised Entrant and Standby Person (AESP) for Confined

Space certificate while the person who supervises their activities must obtain the AESP and Authorised Gas Tester and Entry Supervisor for Confined Space certificate.

Only those who have the certificates from approved training providers, such as NIOSH, are allowed to carry out work in confined spaces.

ICOP is legally binding and must be adhered to by all industries and parties involved in confined work spaces.

Under ICOP, every employer and contractor must conduct a risk assessment in relation to the safety and health risks posed to any person who may be affected by his undertaking, and take all reasonably practicable steps to eliminate any foreseeable risk.

Working in a confined space can expose a person to risky situations that can cause diseases or accidents, leading to injuries and, worse, death.

In most cases, the cause of death is due either to inhalation of toxic gases or oxygen deficiency.

Employers who fail to provide safe and healthy working environments for their employees can be charged under Section 15 of the OSHA, which carries a maximum fine of RM50,000 or two years’ jail or both.

Under the Act, “employee” includes an independent contractor engaged by an employer, or a self-employed person and any employee of the independent contractor.

According to DOSH, the main reason for accidents in confined spaces is the sub-contracting of work to contractors who do not have knowledge and experience working in a confined space.

These contractors normally do not have proper work procedures and equipment for working in a confined space.

Since the work to be done is not routine or regular, the persons involved are normally contract employers with poor safety induction.

Few or none of the standard safeguards would have been provided to them; safe practices and procedures would be neglected; and persons with basic first aid and CPR skills would not be available when needed.

To prevent accidents and fatalities in the future, only those with the certificate of competency issued by a DOSH-registered training provider should be allowed to work in confined spaces.

 

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