Working in confined space on farms requires safety planning

Farms with confined-space hazards need to plan ahead to protect workers.

From 2006 to 2008 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 377 fatal injuries among farmers and farm laborers. Forty-nine of those injuries resulted from exposure to harmful substances and environments on the job. These statistics, though it is not stated directly, point to a major safety concern for most farms: confined space hazards. Each year, news reports provide accounts of work-related deaths occurring in confined space situations on farms across the U.S., including two in Michigan this past year.

Confined spaces are defined as spaces that, because of their configuration, restrict or hinder the activities of workers who must enter, work in and exit them. The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration defines a confined space as one that is large enough that a person can bodily enter and perform work, has a limited or restricted means of entry or exit, and is not designed for continuous occupancy. For most farms, this definition includes silos, grain storage structures, liquid fertilizer or feed supplement tanks, manure pits and controlled atmosphere storage areas.

For each case, either the nature of the structure or the contents of the structure presents a risk of injury or death due to suffocation, poisoning or explosion for anyone entering to do maintenance or other work. The hazards can be broken out further as suffocation or poisoning due to a gas collecting within the structure; envelopment and suffocation within the materials stored in the space; injury resulting from the inhalation of dust; or explosion of flammable gasses ignited as a result of work being done within the space.

Though each of these unique situations present hazards requiring individual sets of safety protocols, there is a basic set of rules used in all confined space situations:

  • Never enter a confined space without ventilating the area.
  • The atmosphere within the space should be tested prior to entry.
  • If the atmosphere cannot be tested or properly ventilated, a correctly fitted, approved self-contained breathing apparatus should be used by the worker entering the space. A safety harness and lifeline should also be used.
  • To reduce risk to the person entering a confined space, additional personnel and equipment should be available to assist in an emergency. An assistant should be equipped with appropriate breathing equipment to execute a rescue if necessary.
  • Have ladders, ropes and lifts available to assist the person entering the confined space and in the event of a rescue attempt
  • The worker in the confined space should maintain communication with those outside the space. Communication may be visual, vocal, or by signal line.
  • All persons who enter or who may enter the confined space should receive training in safety equipment and practices needed for rescue operations. Self-contained, breathing equipment that may be used should be properly fitted beforehand.

While agriculture is exempt from many safety regulations applied to other industries, the confined space entry rules set out by the Michigan Department of Labor Safety Standards provide a practical template when agriculture workers are required to enter confined spaces to accomplish their jobs. Information on these rules can be found at the Michigan DELEG MIOSHA website. More specific information on safety practices relative to confined space situations commonly found on Michigan farms can be found in the National Ag Safety Database

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