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Confined Space Rescue



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 that 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 he or she has 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.

Confined Spaces and Deaths

Confined spaces are deceiving. A confined space often appears to be harmless; no danger signs are apparent and the space may have been entered on prior occasions without incident. However, a worker cannot assume that conditions have not changed and that the space is safe for entry each time.

Confined Space Emergencies

A confined space emergency is any occurrence inside or outside the space, including failure of hazard control or monitoring equipment, that may endanger authorized confined space entrants. Believe it or not, during emergencies, rescuers end up as confined space fatalities more often than those being rescued. So, why is that? 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 that a worker will experience asphyxiation, which may result in brain damage or death.

Preventing Confined Space Rescuer Fatalities


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!


Confined space rescue training topics

At a minimum, training must include:

  • Recognition of permit space hazards.
  • Control of permit space hazards.
  • Use of atmospheric monitoring equipment.
  • Use and maintenance of personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Use and maintenance of rescue equipment.
  • Annual practice of permit space rescues.
  • Proficiency in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
  • Documentation of training.

Three Rescue Strategies

Depending on the severity of the emergency, different rescue strategies or methods can be used. When the emergency is minor, self-rescue is often the best approach; however, if the worker is disabled, it is likely that non-entry or entry rescue may need to be used. Entry rescue involves putting others at risk, and should be used only if absolutely necessary.

  1. Self-rescue is the preferred plan, because of the speed at which confined space hazards can incapacitate and kill,. The self-rescue plan provides entrants with the best chance of escaping a permit space when hazards are present. Whenever authorized entrants recognize their own symptoms of exposure to a dangerous atmosphere, or when a prohibited condition is detected, entrants are still able to escape from the space unaided and as quickly as possible.
  2. Self-rescue is vitally important because the entrant is:

    • Conscious and alert
    • Able to recognize his or her own signs and symptoms
    • Still physically able to evacuate space more rapidly than waiting for someone else to rescue him or her
    • Able to alert fellow workers of impending dangers
    • Not endangering anyone else

  3. Non-entry rescue is the next-best approach when self-rescue is not possible because non-entry rescue can be started right away and prevents additional personnel from being exposed to unidentified and/or uncontrolled confined space hazards. Usually, equipment and other rescue aids are employed to assist in removing endangered entrants. In situations where configuration of the space or other elements prevent the removal of the worker, entry rescue may be the only solution.
  4. Entry rescue involves rescuers entering the space to retrieve the entrant and/or provide the victim with emergency assistance such as CPR, first aid, and air via SCBA or a supplied air respirator (SAR), if needed. An entry rescue plan needs to be developed ahead of time in the event of an emergency for which the non-entry rescue plan is not appropriate.

Informing Rescuers

It's important that rescuers are provided with vital information so that they can most effectively perform rescue operations. Rescuers will need to know:

  • Number of victims and location of emergency
  • Length of time victims have been exposed to hazard
  • Suspected cause of accident
  • All information on entry permit, including:
    • Atmospheric testing results
    • Isolation procedures
    • Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) information

The Rescue Plan

It's important to think through the rescue process proactively to make sure it is successful. Rescue plans may involve on-site rescue teams or they may rely on off-site rescue service providers. A thorough rescue plan includes:

  • A barricade area for crowd control
  • Additional ventilation options
  • Control of other hazards (cave-ins, traffic, etc.)
  • Protective clothing and equipment
  • Appropriate lighting equipment (explosion-proof)
  • Methods of communication
  • A standby rescue team
  • Victim removal procedures and devices
  • Available emergency vehicles
  • Medically trained personnel

Rescue Simulations

It's crucial that members of a rescue team practice simulated confined space rescues for each unique confined space at a facility. Rescue practices in simulated or actual spaces should be performed at least once every 12 months or more frequently if deemed necessary.

Re-evaluating Rescue Plans

Re-evaluate the plan whenever:

  • Conditions change within the space.
  • Workers discover any new hazards.
  • There are changes in the rescue personnel and/or personnel availability.
  • New equipment is purchased.
  • Routine proficiency training results are unsatisfactory.
  • A rescue plan is found to be deficient (e.g., a failed simulated rescue).

On-Site Rescue

Because most rescue service providers are unable to rescue within the four-minute time limit, most employers develop their own rescue teams. At least one on-site rescue team member should be trained in first aid and CPR. Each member of the rescue team should be trained to:

  • Properly use and maintain PPE and rescue equipment
  • Act as a rescuer in annual simulated emergencies
  • Assume individual roles and take on any emergency

Off-Site Rescue

Remember that while the window of opportunity for a rescue is very brief (only four minutes), the response time for an off-site rescue team may be considerably longer. After four minutes have lapsed, the victim could suffer brain damage or die. In some emergencies, rescuers may have even less than four minutes to act. Other situations may allow more time. To make sure your confined rescue plan is effective, make sure you:

  • Arrange for local rescue/fire departments to provide rescue services.
  • Supply the number and description of each permit required confined space in the facility ahead of time.
  • Disclose all known hazards associated with the space(s) so that appropriate rescue plans can be developed.
  • Provide access to the space so that off-site rescue personnel can familiarize themselves with the site, develop a rescue plan in advance, and practice rescue operations.

Off-site Rescue Services

If the employer relies on an off-site rescue service, the employer must contact the provider to verify they are available to conduct rescue operations if requested. The verification task is usually assigned to the entry supervisor. If the off-site rescue service indicates for any reason that it would be unable to respond to a rescue summons, entry must not be authorized unless and until an adequate back-up rescue service is arranged and confirmed.

Entry vs. Non-Entry

If the worker is physically able to use rescue equipment (safety retrieval line, rope, wristlets, etc.), rescuers may choose not to enter the space. Instead, they can provide appropriate equipment and assistance necessary to bring the worker out of the space (a non-entry rescue). In situations in which the worker is unresponsive, atmospheric hazards are extremely high, or significant time has elapsed before rescuers arrive at the site, emergency rescue personnel may decide that the risks associated with entering outweigh the potential for a successful rescue. If this is the case, rescuers may elect not to go into the confined space until conditions warrant a safe entry.

As mentioned earlier, non-entry rescue is the preferred method for confined space emergencies when self-rescue is not possible. It's important to remember that the confined space Attendant should not perform entry rescue. Rescue requiring entry should be performed by a trained rescue team or emergency service providers.

Rescue Equipment

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

  • 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

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.

What kind of equipment should be used for lowering or 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.

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:

  • Wear SCBA or SAR.
  • Do not use air purifying respirators for confined space rescue.

OK... time for that module quiz!

Confined Space Rescue Training


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. Rescues must be performed only by a professional rescuer who has been fully trained and qualified to act as a rescuer.

2. Which of the following is not a common reason rescuers end up as confined space fatalities more often than entrants?

3. When self-rescue is not possible, which confined space rescue strategy is the next best for most emergencies?

4. A rescue attempt will likely become body retrieval after __________ without oxygen.

5. What should the employer do if a rescue service provider is unable to rescue within the four-minute time limit?

Have a great day!

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