Death in Confined Spaces: Hidden Danger

International freight transport insurer TT Club is seeking to draw attention to the hidden danger and life-threatening hazards caused by enclosed and confined spaces prevalent throughout the global supply chain. Toxic gases produced by some cargoes as well as leakages, residual fumigants and other causes of a reduced oxygen environment are the chief problems, with 60% of fatalities suffered by would be rescuers.

Confined or enclosed spaces are common in the supply chain industry. Such spaces exist across all freight modalities; from tank containers to cargo hold stairwells and holds, to road tankers and sealed cargo units. A lack of understanding of the danger present may have fatal consequences.

Without sufficient oxygen the human body starts to shut down very quickly. Any rescue operations are therefore time critical. The primary cause of reduced oxygen levels is the increased presence of other gases, such as carbon dioxide. This may arise from rusting of the ship’s structure or metal cargoes, oxidation of cargoes such as coal or the decomposition of biodegradable cargoes, for example fish meal, logs, bark, or wood pellets. All these lead to carbon dioxide – and potentially other gases – being released, simultaneously depleting the oxygen. Other associated hazards include flammable or toxic vapours from leaking cargoes or leaking pipes or hoses.

Peregrine Storrs-Fox, Risk Management Director at TT explains that a lack of awareness of these, often hidden dangers is surprisingly high. “The key risk is that workers may not readily recognise spaces that could present danger,” he states. “The cargo hold of a ship is a leading example, but containers and other cargo transport units pose similar risks; there may be a lack of knowledge of the cargo packed or whether fumigants have been used. Similarly, tanks units, whether a road barrel or tank container, certainly qualify as enclosed spaces.”

The speed with which the effects of oxygen depletion can become debilitating require thorough and regular communication to ensure that operatives understand the risks. When entering a lethal space there are no obvious red flags. In terms of symptoms there are no warning signs such as coughing or feeling breathless or nauseous. An individual can pass out without having the opportunity to raise an alarm or escape.

The quick onset and catastrophic nature of these symptoms often leads to others rushing to the aid of the casualty, unaware of the reason for their collapse. Statistically, over 60% of fatalities connected to confined and enclosed spaces are suffered by would be rescuers.

“The silent and invisible nature of this killer emphasises the importance of raising awareness of the risk,” stresses Storrs-Fox. “Developing and undertaking drills to practice rescues are crucial steps in mitigating the risks, as are a number of other strategies including risk assessments of working in potentially hazardous spaces, discouraging short cuts in work practices and testing, monitoring and venting air in confined areas.”

While not exhaustive, TT has developed a checklist of risk mitigation strategies that can be applied across all modes, whether on land or at sea.

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