Confined Space Rescue: Bringing Everyone Home

For many of us, the workplace doesn’t get more hazardous than a hot cup of coffee or flickering fluorescent lights. But for thousands of workers in Western Canada and beyond, “going to the office” means physically entering places not even intended for humans – things like silos, vats, sewers, tunnels, pipelines, and other constrictive vessels. And when workplaces have the potential to kill, it’s important to address critical safety issues, not just for workers, but also for the rescuers that may need to go into these hazardous environments after them.


First it’s important to understand what defines a confined space. In conversation with Sean Easton, CEO of Global Rope Access, it becomes quickly apparent that the industry of work in confined spaces, as well as confined space rescue, is both complex and has comprehensive regulations surrounding it. He explains that a confined space has limited openings for entry and exit, and that they can be partially or fully enclosed; these environments are not designed for continuous human occupancy, and the limited means for entry and exit further complicate any potential evacuation or rescue needs. Sean describes a typical office – to enter or leave, an individual simply opens the door and walks in or out. Offices are engineered for people to work in them, without challenge. Confined spaces, in contrast, have inherent dangers in working in them, due to their small and enclosed nature with limited access.

It may not sound appealing to all, but a quick Google search of “confined space” gives a fantastic overview to visualize people working in these areas, and it truly is a massive industry. When you see a manhole in the street opened up to do work, someone is working in a confined space. A person going into a brewer’s vat to power wash the inside is also in a confined space – as are many tasks associated with oil and gas, wastewater treatment, refineries, power plants, and more. With proper training, safety measures, and other precautions, hopefully all this work goes smoothly. However, what if someone has a heart attack while working in a confined space, the oxygen level drops, or the air quality suddenly worsens such that an individual loses consciousness? It is not as simple as putting someone on a stretcher and walking them to an ambulance. The world of confined space rescue is just as technical as preparing and executing work duties in confined spaces.

To execute a confined space rescue, a hazard assessment is immediately needed; this is much like any first aid situation in which the number one priority is to ensure no dangers are present that would put a rescuer (or multiple rescuers) at risk as well. Things like measuring air quality to ensure it is clean and breathable, that all chemicals and toxic gases have been removed, that electricity is removed if electric shock has occurred, and proper ventilation (e.g., use of fans) are all part of the preparation needed before entering a confined space as a worker or rescuer. According to WorkSafeBC, “a worker is considered to have entered a confined space just by putting his or her head across the plane of the opening”. Given this fact, it is critical for employers to ensure that all hazards are mitigated in the vicinity of a confined space, and that the best possible outcome for workers in confined spaces is always ensured.

Once all hazard assessments are complete, rescue capabilities come into play. Rescue resources on a worksite are typically highly trained, equipped with the right tools for the job, and are fully prepared to rescue workers. Confined space rescue is often urgent, providing that time-sensitive exit out of the confined space in order for first aid and other medical measures to be taken. When considering the amount of time that it might take for a firefighting crew to arrive to a worksite, then enter the confined space before executing a rescue, confined space rescuers are the highly trained professionals that provide the critical link for injured workers – sometimes making the difference between life and death.

Rope access is only one method of executing a confined space rescue. It is true that many confined spaces are also high-angle and require the dual rope system that permits narrow access to difficult-to-reach spaces. Such technical rescues necessitate highly trained people equipped with tripods, ropes, lifting devices, and other personal protective equipment to ensure that no one is put at risk by conducting a rescue.

If you ask Sean Easton about confined space rescue, he strongly emphasizes one critical point, which is that individuals and companies should take measures to ensure rescue is never needed at all. The best way to “bring everyone home” and work safely in confined spaces is to take all the preventative measures possible and get all the training needed prior to commencing work in these environments. All the often an injured worker will lose consciousness in a confined space and when well intentioned coworkers or untrained rescuers attempt to help they often end up as additional victims themselves. Employers can prevent such situations through proper understanding and control of hazards. If this expertise is not available in house there are specialists to help.

When working in confined spaces, it’s important to educate everyone on site about hazards and how to mitigate them. Planning procedures need to be put in place to ensure that all work is done safely and to the highest possible standards, aiming to exceed best practices.  No one wants to put human life at stake, much less face poor Occupational Health & Safety statistics, expensive stop-work orders or fines, or negative publicity due to not providing adequate rescue services on a worksite. Confined space rescue provision is a required part of the proper planning and preventative measures that make it feasible to successfully carry out work in confined spaces. While these are never easy jos, they can be done safely if the right expertise is applied.