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Confined Space Rescues


Rescues must be practiced to help ensure they are successful.

Two-thirds of all confined space fatalities occur among would-be rescuers. To prevent deaths, it is critical to use good confined space entry practices so there is no need for rescue operations. Remember, even a well-planned rescue can end up as a body retrieval.

Rescues can be performed by any employee or a professional rescuer so long as they have been fully trained and qualified to act as a rescuer. Qualifications include knowledge of and experience working with all hazards associated with rescue and confined space entry operations.

Before a Rescue Attempt

At a minimum, employers and workers should treat all confined spaces as hazardous. Before entering a confined space to attempt a rescue, a person trained in the proper use of a calibrated, direct-reading instrument must also test for oxygen content, flammable gases and vapors, and potential toxic air contaminates in a confined space. You should never trust your senses to determine if the air in a confined space is safe. You cannot see or smell many toxic gases and vapors, nor can you determine if sufficient oxygen is present.

Before a Rescue Attempt (Continued)

Employers and workers should also:

If an unsafe condition develops, exit the confined space immediately.
  • Ensure that adequate atmospheric conditions are maintained in the spaces at all times through proper ventilation.
  • In those situations in which safe atmospheric conditions cannot be maintained, evaluate if entry is absolutely necessary and/or if the work can be completed from outside the confined space. When entry is necessary, the appropriate respirator should be evaluated and worn by workers with thorough training in the use and limitations of respirators.
  • Make sure that an attendant is present immediately outside the space in case the person in the space needs assistance, and ensure that an emergency retrieval or rescue method is available. Make sure a safe method of communication is available between the person entering the space and the attendant.
  • Exit the space immediately if an unsafe condition develops.
  • Ensure that structures are sound (safe) from collapse prior to entering confined spaces.
  • Use proper personal protective equipment, which will be determined by the hazards that will be encountered in the confined space.
  • Once confined spaces are identified, post warning signs to warn other response personnel, clean-up workers, and the public. When possible, physically block entry.
  • Never enter a confined space to attempt an emergency rescue unless you have been trained in safe confined space entry and rescue procedures and have the proper tools and personal protective equipment.

Reasons for Entering Confined Spaces

The most important reason for entering a confined space is rescue.

Entering a confined space may be done for various reasons. It is done usually to perform a necessary function, such as inspection, repair, maintenance (cleaning or painting), or similar operations which would be an infrequent or irregular function of the total industrial activity.

Entry may also be made during new construction. One of the most difficult confined space entries to control is that of unauthorized entry, especially when there are large numbers of workers and trades involved, such as welders, painters, electricians, and safety monitors.

A final and most important reason for entry would be emergency rescue. This, and all other reasons for entry, must be well planned before initial entry is made and the hazards must be thoroughly reviewed. Since deaths in confined spaces often occur because the atmosphere is oxygen deficient or toxic, confined spaces should be tested prior to entry and continually monitored. More than 60% percent of confined space fatalities occur among would-be rescuers; therefore, a well-designed and properly executed rescue plan is a must.

Fatalities can occur when the rescuers:

  • Are overcome by their emotions
  • Take unnecessary chances
  • Do not know the hazards involved
  • Do not have a plan of action
  • Lack confined space rescue training

It is important to know that the period of time for successful rescue is very limited. Otherwise, a rescue attempt will become body retrieval. After only four minutes without oxygen, it is very likely a worker will experience asphyxiation, which may result in brain damage or death.

Preventing Confined Space Rescuer Fatalities

rescue training
Make sure rescue team members understand their duties.

Planning the rescue is paramount. Make sure rescue team members understand their duties, and practice, practice, practice!

Ensure that the rescuer does not travel a greater distance than allowed by the air supply, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and escape cylinders. Analyze distance, space configurations, physical obstacles, and total time needed to enter the space, perform rescue operations, and leave the space. Leave the space immediately whenever a problem arises with respiratory protection equipment or whenever the attendant orders evacuation. Everyone involved in a rescue should assume that the space is deadly and that entry rescue may be required in the worst case!

Rescue Equipment

The importance of having the right rescue equipment on hand can't be stressed enough. Rescue equipment may include:

These rescuers are using various rescue equipment during training.
  • Full body harness with retrieval line attached
  • Wristlets (may be used in rescue when it can be shown that they are the safest and most effective means of rescue)
  • Hand-cranked mechanical winch and tripod (required when entrant is five feet or more below the entrance)
  • Ladder
  • Explosion-proof lighting
  • Stretcher
  • Approved head protection
  • First Aid equipment
Full body harnesses and retrieval lines are necessary rescue equipment.

Full Body Harness and Retrieval Lines

All authorized entrants and rescuers entering permit spaces are required to use full body harnesses and retrieval lines, unless it is determined that the retrieval equipment would increase the overall risk of entry or would not contribute to the rescue operation.

Lowering and Lifting Entrants

Only devices designed by the manufacturer and approved for moving humans should be used. The equipment must enable a rescuer to remove the injured employee from the space quickly without injuring the rescuer or further harming the victim.

Respiratory Protection

Figure 1: Air-supplying respirators
(Click to enlarge)

If there is even a remote possibility of other atmospheric contaminants, even though monitoring equipment readings appear to be within the normal ranges, rescuers should still use appropriate respiratory protection. Play it safe: Do not use air purifying respirators for confined space rescue.

Figure 1 shows a rescue team wearing air-supplying respirators inside a confined space, in this case a tank.

If a hazardous atmosphere exists in the confined space such as toxic gases, an appropriate air-purifying respirator may be used. However, if the confined space has a lack of oxygen, an air-purifying respirator will do no good – there is no supply of oxygen to breath in the first place. In this situation, an entrant would need to wear an air-supplying respirator. An air-supplying respirator will supply breathable air and will protect the entrant from breathing in hazardous air from the atmosphere of the confined space.

Real Life Scenario

The most common confined space fatality is an unprepared rescuer.

A volunteer fire fighter died after being overcome by low oxygen and sewer gases while climbing down into a sewer manhole to rescue a village utility worker. The utility worker had entered the manhole to investigate a reported sewer problem and was overcome by low oxygen and sewer gases.

The incident occurred behind the fire station in an underground sewer line that ran under the fire station. The local utility company contacted the chief of the village’s volunteer fire department and requested that a piece of fire apparatus be moved out of the station so they would not block it in while accessing a manhole.

The fire chief responded to the station to move fire apparatus so it would not be blocked by the utility trucks. The victim and another fire fighter also arrived at the station to assist. A utility worker entered the manhole behind the station to clear a sewer backup and was overcome by a lack of oxygen and sewer gases and then fell unconscious inside the manhole. The fire fighter then entered the manhole without any personal protective equipment to help the utility worker and was also overcome by the low oxygen level and sewer gases. The fire fighter and the utility worker were later removed from the sewer manhole by fire department personnel and transported to a local hospital where they were pronounced dead.

The medical examiner reported the cause of death as asphyxia due to low oxygen and exposure to sewer gases.

Key Recommendations

  • Ensure that workers are properly trained and equipped to recognize the hazards of and participate in a confined space technical rescue operation
  • Ensure that standard operating procedures regarding technical rescue capabilities are in place and a risk benefit analysis is performed to protect the safety of all responders
  • Ensure that an effective incident management system is in place that supports technical rescue confined space operations
  • Ensure that a safety officer properly trained in the technical rescue field being performed is on scene and integrated into the command structure.


Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

Good luck!

1. _____ of all confined space fatalities occur among would-be rescuers.

2. What must happen before attempting a confined space rescue?

3. Employers and workers should treat all confined spaces as _____.

4. After only _____ without oxygen, a worker will experience _____, which may result in brain damage or death.

5. Rescue equipment includes which of the following?

Have a great day!

Important! You will receive an "error" message unless all questions are answered.