In July of 2017, a utility worker in Key Largo, Florida went into a manhole to investigate the cause of a bad smell. The worker quickly succumbed to the toxic fumes inside the manhole. The same happened to the utility worker who went in to save him.

As did the worker who tried to save them.

As also did the firefighter who tried to save them.

On that day, the three utility workers died, and the firefighter was left very ill. Three greatly saddening, yet ultimately avoidable deaths.

With 30 years of experience in just about every position along the ranks as a firefighter, you can believe Scott Burkart when he says confined spaces, while seemingly innocuous, may become an extremely dangerous environment for workers.

Confined Space

But what exactly is a confined space? OSHA defines a confined space using 3 parts:

  1. The space is large enough for a body to enter and do required work inside.
  2. The space restricts means of entry and exit. Essentially, is there something that impedes any entrant (like a ladder) or does the entrant need physical assistance to exit.
  3. The space is not designed for continuous employee occupancy. In other words, because of factors like lighting, ventilation or barriers it is not designed for any one person to be inside for an extended period.

Common examples of confined spaces include silos, pits, bins, hoppers, even vehicles like railroad cars and, of course, manholes.

Breaking it down even further, there are two different classifications of confined spaces: permit-required confined space and non-permit confined spaces. The primary difference between the two is a permit required confined space contains or has a potential to contain a hazard that can harm and/or engulf an entrant.

Every confined space must be evaluated by the company controlling them to determine if they are a permit required or non-permit confined space. Regardless of classification, every company needs a plan.

Why Are Confined Spaces So Dangerous?

Scott’s biggest warning when it comes to confined space entry is to never take risks lightly.

“Confined spaces hazards do vary,” Scott said. “The conditions and atmosphere inside of a confined space can change rapidly with little or no warning and put whoever inside at extreme risk.”

Potential risks facing those who enter a confined space include becoming stuck, crushed or engulfed by any material inside. However, Scott cites one of common hazard to be toxic chemical fumes – as was the case in Key Largo.

Hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide are two of the most common atmospheric hazards found in confined spaces because they are a naturally occurring byproduct off gassed from decaying or rotting materials that could be located inside the confined space.

These gasses cannot be reliably detected by our senses. Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas with a strong rotten egg smell, but exposure to high concentration can deaden your sense of smell.  Rendering you unable to smell hydrogen sulfide. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that can often cause incapacitation to entrants who have not taken the proper precautions. However, these aren’t the people at the greatest risk.

Since April of 1993, when the permit required confined space standard was adopted, two out of every three deaths in a confined space were by people who only entered the confined space to rescue or assist someone else. In all, over the past 20 years, we see an average of about 92 fatalities per year. That’s around 60 deaths per year by someone trying to save someone else.

Prevention and Planning

That is why the ability to self-rescue or, better yet, total prevention of entering a dangerous atmosphere is so key.

Scott says the two most important pieces of equipment any entrant can have at a planned confined space entry is an air monitor and a ventilation fan. Everything else like lifelines, harnesses, tripods, etc. are all reactive equipment.  They are only used after an event occurs where the entrant cannot self-rescue.  With an air monitor and ventilation fan, you have the ability to detect or prevent a hazardous situation from occurring.

An air monitor, for instance, will tell you immediately if the environment is dangerous to breath. Any atmosphere with; 19.5% oxygen or less, has a flammable gas greater than 10% of the LEL (lower explosive level), or a toxic atmosphere above the permissible exposure limit (PEL) is no longer safe and should not be entered.  It is possible that just one breath can incapacitate the entrant.

Apart from the right equipment, any company working with confined spaces needs a plan. Before entry, a written policy and an entry permit to ensure safe entry by employees need to be in place, mapping out exactly who are playing the key roles: the entrant, the attendant (the one responsible for monitoring the entrant), the entry supervisor (who is responsible for the entire operation) and the designated rescue team.

Scott Burkart is dedicated and passionate about the safety and security of homes, businesses and the people in them. His services are available as a consultant, inspector and educator of a number of safety, prevention and construction courses.

For questions or inquiries, contact Scott at