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Hands-on confined space training keeps employees safe in tight places

July 13, 2016

It could mean life or death if IU employees enter some of the smallest spaces on the Bloomington campus without a gas monitor, a harness and a team.

That’s why confined space training has been required for many years for Facility Operations employees, and the reason the training has become even more robust this year with a new hands-on learning component.

Jaymes Staley

Jaymes Staley, a production specialist at the central heat plant, climbs out of a concrete sewer during confined space training at the Bloomington Township Fire Department training facility. | PHOTO BY JAMES BROSHER, IU COMMUNICATIONS

Among those who squeeze into those tight places are electricians, heat mechanics, plumbers, elevator mechanics and preventative maintenance and sheet metal workers. 

Depending on the university’s needs, they may have to crawl or be lowered into a space large enough for an employee to enter but not designed for continuous occupancy and with limited or restricted entries or exits.

Whether it’s a vault, tank, storage bin, pit, vessel or silo, once inside the Facility Operations crew may not be able to see or move easily. The temperature or gases in the air could change, or they might suddenly be engulfed in water. It’s in those confined spaces when their training comes in handy.

“I feel better knowing if I had to do this job, I’d be capable of doing it and know what to expect,” said Andy Perkins, a crew leader at the central heat plant who has been working for IU for five years.

During confined space training, Perkins is outfitted in a heavy harness that loops around his legs, waist, chest and shoulders. His harness is checked to make certain it’s tight enough, the many straps are positioned across his body properly and all the metal buckles have been fastened with a reassuring click.

Perkins’ harness is attached to a clip that connects him to a metal tripod over the hole he’ll soon be dropped into.

His team, made up of a supervisor, an attendant and an entrant -- that’s Perkins -- has already tested the gases below, and determined that the oxygen levels are safe. 

They’re also testing for methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide and other flammable gases because they need to know whether Perkins can enter the space safely or whether the air can be changed in some way to make it safe.

It’s not until Perkins and the team are satisfied that he can enter without danger that he’s lowered into a cement tube about 48 inches wide.

“You have to have a lot of trust, teamwork and communication,” said Ryan Crowe, safety programs specialist in capital planning and facilities.

For two days, employees within facility operations undergo confined space training, which includes how to deal with the “unknown” in those tiny places on campus. 

Neil Toth, an occupational safety specialist, shows a permit form filled out by employees before entry into a confined space during training at the Bloomington Township Fire Department training facility. | PHOTO BY JAMES BROSHER, IU COMMUNICATIONS

Facilities Operations partners with the Office of Environmental Health and Safety to develop and deliver content. To conduct the hands-on portion, they use the training facilities at the Bloomington Township Fire Department.

One by one, each employees are dropped into the hole, and they are put through different scenarios to make sure they know what to do in various situations.

They learn how best to communicate with their team, fill out permits, how to properly use the electronic gas meter they’ll have with them at all times within the space, and how to pull or push air out of the space if gases inside pose a danger.

“Each confined space is a little bit different, which is why I feel they can be so hazardous,” Crowe said. “Confined spaces can be damp, dry, humid, dirty, clean, hot or cold. Most of them are also dark which can lead to other hazards.”

Jaymes Staley is a production specialist, and he’s got a smaller build, which means he’s often the first one picked to go inside confined spaces. Staley finds himself between steel drums and boilers to clean tight spots inside the central heating plant where dust builds up.

When he’s squeezed into those tight spots, it isn’t always the air in the atmosphere that’s the issue. Staley has felt claustrophobic in confined spaces before. 

If that happens, Staley said he’ll spend only as much time in the space as he can, and then he gets out. He won’t go back in until he feels comfortable.

As you look around campus, a confined space may not seem obvious, but Anthony Miller, part of the central heating plant’s maintenance crew, said he uses the training every day. He’s been at IU for 10 years, and going into a confined space doesn’t make him nervous at all.

By the end of the two-day training, IU’s Facility Operations workers are proficient at using the gas monitors; they know their roles and responsibilities; they’ve practiced filling out permits and check lists, and starting this year, they’ve gone into a confined space.

“It takes learning to a whole new level than just watching a video,” said Neil Toth, an occupational safety specialist, who was overseeing the training with Crowe. “It’s a critical part of how we work.”

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