By Dennis O'Connell, Roco Director of Training & Chief Instructor
As Director of Training, I get many questions about rescue techniques and regulations from our students and readers. In the past month alone, I have received three inquiries about "timely response for rescue teams" regarding permit required confined spaces (PRCS). So, let's break it down and try to clear the air on this subject. For clarification, we will refer to the General Industry Standard 1910.146; the Construction Standard 1926-1211; and the Respiratory Standard 1910.134.
In 1910.146, OSHA provides guidance on timely response in Subpart K (Rescue and Emergency Services) and again in Non-Mandatory Appendix F (Rescue Team or Rescue Services Evaluation Criteria). Subpart (k)(1)(i) states: "Evaluate a prospective rescuer's ability to respond to a rescue summons in a timely manner, considering the hazard(s) identified."
This one sentence actually says volumes about response times. The first question to be answered is, "Can the rescue service respond in a timely manner?" It then gives a hint as to what a timely manner should be based on. The second part of the sentence refers to "considering the hazard(s) identified." What this so eloquently says is the response time must be determined based on the possible hazard(s). This means the "known and potential hazard(s)" must be identified for each space to be entered. The hazards discovered -- based on severity, type, how rapidly the hazard could become IDLH or injure the worker, how quickly the need to treat the injury, or how quickly hazards might interfere with the ability to escape the space unaided -- would then be used to determine an acceptable response time. This is why OSHA only alludes to response times and does not set hard and fast times to follow -- it depends on the hazards of that particular space.
Another aspect we need to consider is that "response time" begins when the call for help goes out, not once the team is on scene. It ends when the team is set-up and ready to perform the rescue. So, how long will it take your team to be notified, respond and set-up is a big portion of that acceptable response time calculation. For example, a dedicated onsite fire/rescue team would be able to respond faster than workers who have other responsibilities and need to meet at the firehouse before responding. Or, more quickly than an outside service, such as a municipal department, that would have to respond to the facility, get through the gate, and be led to the scene.
In the note to paragraph (k)(1)(i), it adds: What will be considered timely will vary according to the specific hazards involved in each entry. For example, OSHA 1910.134, Respiratory Protection, requires that employers provide a standby person or persons capable of immediate action to rescue employee(s) wearing respiratory protection while in work areas defined as IDLH atmospheres.
Here we see OSHA better defining an acceptable response time for IDLH atmospheres -- i.e., immediate action! However, it's important to note this doesn't just refer to low O2...depending on the type of contaminant in the atmosphere, other respiratory equipment such as half- or full-face APRs could be used. It may include a dusty environment where the entrant wears a mask and visibility is less than 5 feet. Technically, that would be considered an IDLH environment. Many people get hung up on the use of SAR/SCBA as the trigger for a standby team, and that is just not the case.
For an IDLH atmosphere where respiratory protection is needed, an adequate number of persons (rescuers) is required to perform a rescue from the type of space involved - ready, trained, equipped and standing by at the space -- ready to take immediate action should an emergency occur. So, when dealing with possible IDLH atmospheres, we are looking at "hands-on" the patient in 3-4 minutes as possibly being an appropriate response time. Basically, this is about how long an entrant can survive without air. The only way to safely make rescue entry in that time frame is to have rescuers standing by, suited up and ready to go!
So, if dealing with an IDLH atmosphere, we revert back to 1910.134. Many people think that that is the only time we need a team standing by ready to take immediate action. I pose the question, "If the hazard is a liquid (engulfment hazard), what would be a reasonable response time?" If the victim is Tarzan or Johnny Weissmuller (okay, Michael Phelps, for you younger people), we may have a longer stay-afloat time. But if a non-swimmer, or in an aerated solution or other engulfment hazard, immediate action may be their only chance of survival! And, what about radiation (time, distance, shielding)? I am sure you can think of a few more possibilities.
And, while OSHA referred to an IDLH atmosphere in this example, it's important to consider other IDLH hazards as well. Here's where we note that the definition of IDLH in the Respiratory Standard (1910.134) differs slightly in Permit-Required Confined Spaces (1910.146). The Respiratory standard specifically refers to an IDLH "atmosphere" while the PRCS standard states the following: Immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) means any condition that poses an immediate or delayed threat to life or that would cause irreversible adverse health effects or that would interfere with an individual's ability to escape unaided from a permit space. This includes more than simply atmospheric hazards!
OSHA NOTE: Some materials -- hydrogen fluoride gas and cadmium vapor, for example -- may produce immediate transient effects that, even if severe, may pass without medical attention, but are followed by sudden, possibly fatal collapse 12-72 hours after exposure. The victim feels "normal" until collapse. Such materials in hazardous quantities are considered to be "immediately" dangerous to life or health.
In Non-Mandatory Appendix F (I hate that non-mandatory language), OSHA gives guidance on evaluating response times under Section A - Initial Evaluation. What are the needs of the employer with regard to response time (time for the rescue service to receive notification, arrive at the scene, and set up and be ready for entry)? For example, if entry is to be made into an IDLH atmosphere, or into a space that can quickly develop into an IDLH atmosphere (if ventilation fails or for other reasons), the rescue team or service would need to be standing by at the permit space. On the other hand, if the danger to entrants is restricted to mechanical hazards that would cause injuries (e.g., broken bones, abrasions) a response time of 10 or 15 minutes might be adequate.
Not a bad paragraph for a non-mandatory section of the standard! Here they explain what they are looking for in regards to response times. They even take the OSHA 1910.134 IDLH atmosphere requirement for a team standing by at the space a little further by adding "or into a space that can quickly develop into an IDLH atmosphere." It also states if the hazard is mechanical in nature, 10-15 minutes might be adequate. That’s right, "might" not will be, but might be. Again, it depends on the hazard.
Paragraphs 2-7 in Appendix F goes on to describe other conditions that should be considered when determining response times such as traffic, team location, onsite vs. offsite teams, communications, etc. If you have not done so, I highly recommend that you review the not-so-Non-Mandatory Appendix F. It is also important to note that while it's not mandatory to follow the exact methods described in Appendix F, meeting the requirements are! OSHA also uses the word "should" in Appendix F, not following the OSHA recommendations could certainly lead to some hard questions post incident.
OSHA 1926 Subpart AA Confined Spaces in Construction closely mirrors 1910.146. In this relatively new standard, they simplified the definition of timely response and omitted Non-Mandatory Appendix F, which helps to eliminate the confusion of the "non-mandatory" language, and included the requirements right in the standard, which is good. However, 1910.146 really gives you a better idea of what timely would be for different situations through the notes in Section (k) and Appendix F.
Section 1926.1211 of the Construction Standard for Rescue and Emergency Services (a)(1) states: Evaluate a prospective rescuer’s ability to respond to a rescue summons in a timely manner, considering the hazard(s) identified. This is immediately followed by: Note to paragraph 1926.1211(a)(1). What will be considered timely will vary according to the specific hazards involved in each entry. For example, OSHA1926.103, Respiratory Protection (for construction) requires that employers provide a standby person or persons capable of immediate action to rescue employee(s) wearing respiratory protection while in work areas defined as IDLH atmospheres.
In closing, these regulations are driving you in the same direction for identifying what a timely response would be...THERE IS NO SET TIME FRAME! Each space must be evaluated based on potential hazards and how quickly rescue would need to take place. I hope this will make you take a closer look at "how and what" you consider a timely response. An employer's PRCS program must identify and evaluate the rescue resources to be used. It is then up to the entry supervisor to make sure the identified rescue service is available to respond in a timely manner, which can literally mean life or death for the entrants.