The following article was written by Russell Warn and published in ISHN magazine (ishn.com), December 2016. Roco comments have been added to the article and are noted in red.
Working in confined spaces presents a unique and dangerous challenge in combatting the unseen – oxygen deficiency, poisonous or explosive gases, and other hazardous substances are among the most frequent causes of accidents associated with work in confined spaces and containers.
From 2005-2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported nearly two deaths per week, or roughly 96 per year, could be attributed to confined space, with about 61 percent occurring during construction repair or cleaning activities.
With conditions subject to change in a moment’s notice, taking steps to protect against life-threatening dangers should always be a top priority in confined spaces. Performing a thorough clearance measurement is a demanding — yet crucial — task that dictates the safety environment, and should not be taken lightly. To help guide you along your road to enhanced safety, outlined below are several best practices based on frequently asked questions.
When should I perform a clearance measurement?
Conduct clearance measurements immediately before operations begin. Environmental factors such as temperature and air flow can change the atmosphere, causing readings to fluctuate. One shift’s measurement taken at 7 a.m. is not representative of the conditions when work operations commence for another shift at 4 p.m. New clearance measurements must be taken immediately to account for the nine hours of changing temperatures and ventilation patterns, depicting the accurate readings of present conditions.
Roco Comment: In addition to pre-entry clearance measurements, entry into permit spaces during construction activities requires "continuous atmospheric monitoring" unless the entry employer can demonstrate that equipment for continuous monitoring is not commercially available or periodic monitoring is sufficient. Ref. 1926.1203 (e)(2)(vi), 1926.1204 (e)1)(ii), and 1926.1204 (e)(2). Additionally, Roco believes that for "ALL" permit entry operations, it is advisable to provide continuous atmospheric monitoring no matter what the industry activity entails.
What’s the importance of zero-point adjustment?
When performing clearance measurements, it’s crucial to determine the reference point of the gas detector by calibrating the zero-point. The zero-point ensures that the indicated values correspond to the actual existing gas concentrations. In order to determine that the actual zero-point has been found, calibrate equipment in an environment where the hazardous substance is not present, such as fresh air environments. With every scientific test, no matter the field, a control group, which serves as a starting point of reference, permits for the comparison of results to show any contrasting changes. The zero-point calibration acts as such, allowing workers to identify the presence, or lack thereof, of different gas concentrations.
Where do I measure/take the sample?
When it comes to measuring samples, there are four things to keep in mind: the physical properties of gases, and the type and shape, temperature and ventilation patterns of the confined space.
Know the differences between light and heavy gases. Clearance measurement experts must have a strong working knowledge of hazardous substances’ properties, as they play a role in where measurements should be taken. For example, if a sample is pulled from the top of the confined space and hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is detected, the sample may not be entirely reliable. H2S has a molar mass of 34 g/mol, which is significantly heavier than that of air (29 g/mol). As a result, H2S sinks to the bottom of a space, where its concentration would be greatest. Identifying a presence at the top of the confined space says immediate danger and appropriate actions should be taken.
Light gases quickly mix with air and rise to the top. As a result, any measurements in open atmospheres should be performed close to the leak, and increases in concentration should appear in the highest points of the confined space. Heavy gases, on the other hand, should sink and flow like liquids, pass obstacles or stick to them. They barely mix with air like light gases do, so their samples should always be taken at the lowest points of the confined space.
Determine the type/shape of the confined space: In an ideal scenario, each confined space area would be in an “even” or level position. This isn’t always the case, and a container may be placed on an inclined surface, making the highest point in the corner positioned toward the top of the inclined surface. Thus, entry may be nearer to where the heavy gases have accumulated.
Take tabs on temperatures. All matter is made up of atoms and molecules that are constantly moving. When heat is added to a substance, such as a gas, the molecules and atoms vibrate faster. As the gas molecules begin to move faster, the speed of diffusion increases. If the sun has been shining on a tank for hours, there’s a good chance the clearance measurement taken at dawn no longer reflects the current readings due to the increase in diffusion.
Vet the ventilation. Air currents change the position and concentration of air clouds, and often times, the way a confined space is ventilated can affect readings. Containers cannot always be separated from pipelines, or there may be leaks in the tanks that must be accounted.
Roco Comment: Not only is it required by certain OSHA provisions like alternate entry procedures, but Roco highly recommends monitoring the atmosphere prior to initiating ventilation. This is intended to provide a reasonable assessment of the potential atmosphere change should the ventilation equipment fail. The rate for a potential hazard to re-develop will be based on factors such as the effectiveness of isolation, any residual product within the space, temperature, humidity and passive ventilation which are among just some of the factors.
How do I safely conduct the measurement for an accurate reading?
People often question why they can’t just use the carrying strap of their device to lower the device into the confined space for a reading. Although this seems like a simple fix, it’s not a safe or recommended way to conduct the measurement. Lowering the device into the container this way not only obscures the way the display is read, but it may not audibly alarm. If the measured value is slightly below the threshold value and the alarm does not sound, a worker would not be notified of the dangerous concentrations lurking below. Not only this, but measurements may be inaccurate since the measured gases, due to their molar masses, may be concentrated at a higher or lower point within the container. Clearance measurements should be conducted on-site and on-the-ground of the confined space for accurate, safe readings.
Roco Comment: The points made in the preceding paragraph are certainly valid. The best solution that we can offer is to use remote sampling probes or tubes to actively draw (pump) samples from the stratified levels of the space while the direct reading instrument is in a position outside the space to observe the real time readings. To expound upon the point the author makes, if the pre-set threshold for the alarms are not enough to trigger the alarm indicating the presence of a hazardous atmosphere, and the individual performing the assessment relies instead on rapidly pulling the monitor from the space in the hope that they are able to read the display before the values change, is a very dangerous way of approaching this procedure. Depending on the sampling rate of the monitor, the hazardous gas(s) may have cleared from the monitor in the time it takes to withdraw it from the space, and it is very likely that the instrument will display a normal atmosphere by the time it is back within view. Additionally, for areas within the space that cannot be remotely assessed by remote sampling prior to entry, the only safe recourse is to limit entry to the areas that have been assessed and to take a monitor into the space to continuously assess the unreachable regions before venturing further.
What do I need to document during clearance measurement protocols?
Just as it’s important to remain thorough in clearance measurements procedures, it’s equally as important to remain thorough in the general housekeeping protocols surrounding samples. This includes documenting:
- • The container number
- • The measuring point of the container, and whether there was more than one measuring point
- • At which time was the clearance performed
- • Under what condition was the measurement performed
- • Measured hazardous substances
- • Name of person performing measurement
- • Equipment used for clearance
Safety, regardless of job title or responsibility, should be everyone’s top priority. When working in the midst of poisonous and explosive hazards, performing clearance measurements correctly and carefully means not only keeping one’s self safe, but keeping the working environment safe, as well.
About the Author:
Russell Warn is the product support manager for gas detection products at Dräger. He has been in the safety industry for more than 29 years, with most of this time dedicated to gas detection product and application support.