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You have the right to refuse to enter dangerous confined spaces

Does your job in the Twin Cities region involve entering any of the following areas: silos, septic tanks, sewage digesters, reaction vehicles, boilers, vats, pumping stations, pipelines, lift stations, utility vaults, manholes or any other confined spaces? Then you will likely be aware that working in confined spaces is a known hazard that has led to the deaths of many. Some of the recorded fatalities were rescuers who died along with the workers they tried to save.

What defines a confined space?

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, confined spaces are work areas with restricted entry or exit means that are large enough for employees to enter and do their assigned jobs -- one worker at a time. Workers may not enter without a special permit that recognizes the area as a confined space subject to particular safety precautions.

What makes confined spaces dangerous?

Spaces that require confined space permits pose different hazards that typically cause more than just workplace injuries. Each of the following hazards are life threatening on their own, and are especially deadly in combination:

  • Hazardous atmosphere: This occurs when airflow in confined spaces is restricted, exacerbating the risk of atmospheric toxins overwhelming the worker.
  • Engulfment: There is a high risk for this whenever there is the presence of material that could engulf an employee in a confined space.
  • Sloping floors: Any confined space with tapered walls and floors that converges inward can cause entrapment.

All three of the above characteristics of confined spaces can lead to death by asphyxiation. Toxic atmospheric conditions, oxygen deficiency when engulfed by grain, soil or another material, and torso compression in narrow workspaces can cause asphyxiation. Remember, you have the right to refuse to enter such a space without the necessary safety precautions.

Examples of fatalities in confined spaces

The following examples of tragic workplace accidents that occurred in confined spaces may underscore the risks of entering these areas without taking the necessary precautions:

  • Silo: A worker at a cement plant died after he was trapped in a cement silo where fly ash overwhelmed him and caused asphyxiation.
  • Grain bin: While trying to open a chute at the base of a grain bin, a 42-year-old employee could not escape the engulfing grain, and asphyxiation caused his death.
  • Manure pit: Five workers died when methane gas overwhelmed them in a manure pit.
  • Oil well: Two oil field workers entered a confined space to rescue a co-worker. Sadly all three died when poisonous gasses overwhelmed them.

How will your family cope if your life ends in a confined space?

If your employer fails to comply with OSHA regulations and sends you into a confined workspace without the necessary permit and safety precautions, your life may be on the line. Minnesota families who have lost loved ones in such tragic circumstances may find comfort in learning that they may be eligible for survivors' benefits through the workers' compensation insurance program of the state. Legal counsel with experience in helping surviving family members to recover funeral and burial costs and lost wages might simplify the claims process.

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