Exiting Safely: Preparing for Confined Space Rescue/Retrievals

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Incidents that prevent workers from self-rescue can occur in confined spaces due to ill-conceived attempts to rescue and retrieve others, but planning for a rescue can help prevent tragic results.

Proper rescue and retrieval plans often are not created for confined spaces, as is demonstrated by the over 100 deaths that occur annually inside confined spaces in the United States according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics1. In almost all of these incidents, NIOSH investigations reveal that no rescue plans were in place. OSHA requires that you have a defined and documented rescue and retrieval plan specific to your confined space, whether it be for a tunnel, storage tank, manhole, elevator shaft, reaction vessel, ductwork or even wastewater treatment facility, which are just some examples, before any entry or work inside these kinds of spaces can even begin to take place.

But a detailed rescue and retrieval plan is only one critical step of being prepared (it’s one of the four elements we talk about here). The act of rescue and retrieval will also need to be performed by someone who is competent and has completed proper training. They must also understand how to select, wear and use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and other tools or equipment that will be needed.

Let’s explore this a little more in this article by looking at these questions:

What is a rescue plan and what comprises a thorough plan?
What training is needed to facilitate a rescue/retrieval from a confined space?
What types of rescue/retrieval may be needed?
What is a post-rescue review?
What PPE and other products, equipment will be needed?

Before any entry is made into a confined space on a job site, everyone involved should be able to answer these questions.

Have a Rescue Plan in Place Before Any Entry Occurs

Among the many aspects of a robust rescue plan, at a minimum a rescue plan should:

  • Describe the location of the confined space and the job being conducted inside
  • Identify the rescuer, competent person who will be on hand, emergency contact and the methods of contact that will be used to keep in contact with those in the confined space or by anyone involved should a rescue become necessary
  • Layout all pre-work tasks
  • Catalog all the rescue equipment that will be available for use and where they can be located, including a checklist for thorough inspection that evaluates it is in good working order
  • List all the critical rescue factors, including any hazards present
  • Record the response procedure, including how to notify the emergency contact, how to make a medical assessment of the person stuck inside, and if possible, how to have the trapped employee perform a self-rescue or other next steps if that is not possible

The emergency response plan can be modeled after the NFPA 350 best practice guide. Appropriate means for rescue must be determined prior to the start of any confined space entry activities. The procedures set up at your work or job site for emergency rescue for each specific confined space need to be suitable and sufficient.

The detailed rescue plan should be documented, reviewed and in place before any person attempts to enter or begins work in a confined space. The rescue plan for each confined space should be reviewed by all individuals involved in the entry each time that space is going to be entered, just like a hazard assessment should be conducted before any entry into a confined space. These plans should be practiced as part of training so everyone knows what to do if a rescue/retrieval situation does arise.

You should speak up and not enter a confined space without ensuring there is a plan in place about how to react should a rescue and retrieval become necessary.

Make Sure You are Properly Trained to Rescue

Before any access is granted to a confined space, you should evaluate the needs of a rescue team and what training is required for the team (or individual) to perform a rescue operation. Consider tailoring training to the specific roles needed, including:

  • Confined space competent person who is responsible for the evaluation of confined spaces on the job site
  • Confined space supervisor who approves the work inside that is being done
  • Confined space attendant and entrant for those who are responsible for the work inside
  • Confined space entry rescuer who may have to enter and assist in a rescue/retrieval

All confined space rescuers, per the requirements of OSHA general industry and construction regulations, are required to receive annual refresher training. This must include utilizing similar spaces and techniques anticipated at the job site.

You’ll find, rescue training covers a wide range of information related to hazardous conditions and all types of rescue equipment. Moreover, rescuers will also require training to prepare for tasks involved with accessing confined spaces, such as descent control, secondary systems, patient packaging methods, dismantling techniques, proper storage of equipment, selection, and use of suitable anchors, as well as the common hazards that pertain to the system and components.

For rescues requiring entry:

  • All members of the team must be specially trained in confined space rescue work
  • The team must have at least one member certified in CPR and first aid
  • All members of the team must be trained in the techniques and equipment for specific confined spaces
  • The members who are going to assist with the rescue should be well-versed in the rescue plan for that confined space and review both the risk and hazard assessments that have been conducted for that specific space

According to current U.S. regulations and industry standards, an identified rescuer, whether in-house or an outside rescue service is used, must have the ability to respond to a permit space rescue request in a timely manner, considering the hazards identified.

Types of Rescue/Retrieval

There are different types of rescue/retrievals that can be conducted, depending on the situation you and your team are facing.

Self-Rescueworker performing self rescue in confined space
Self-rescue is exactly what it sounds like. This is when you can rescue yourself with your own means and you can use equipment that is suited for self-rescue that will allow you to climb out of the space safely. Self-rescue requires the entrant to stop what they are doing and safely exit the space as quickly as possible.

Self-rescue should be implemented whenever an entrant or attendant determines there is a problem within the space. This may include a potentially hazardous change in atmospheric conditions within the space or when signs or symptoms of an exposure are noted. Self-rescue may also occur if the entrant realizes that PPE is faulty, communication with the attendant is severed, or some other hazard presents itself that may put the entrant in danger.

Non-Entry Rescue
If self-rescue is not an option, the next consideration should be if a non-entry rescue can be carried out. Non-entry rescue occurs when a worker outside the space does not have to enter to help a worker exit a confined space safely. This type of rescue often requires an attendant or non-entry rescue team. A non-entry retrieval option is required at all times unless the retrieval equipment would increase the risk to the worker or not contribute to the rescue.

The person or people helping the worker out of the confined space will often require the use of a retrieval system comprised of the following components:

  1. Anchor systems such as a davit, pole hoist or tripod
  2. Body harness, worn by the entrant
  3. Connection devices such as a winch or retrieval SRL

This type of rescue is only effective in simple vertical or horizontal spaces. The opening must be able to accommodate the anchor system, and the surface around the opening must support the weight of it in addition to the attached entrant. If the entrant is injured or cannot perform a self-rescue, the attendant can remove the entrant using the retrieval system. This is where a retrieval system with a mechanical advantage becomes very helpful.

If neither self-rescue or non-entry rescue is possible, an entry rescue will be required. If you have a properly trained rescue and retrieval team, they will need to be called upon to help perform getting the entrants out.

Entry Rescue
An entry rescue is required when someone cannot get out on their own and requires not just a team on the outside to assist, but someone who will enter the space to assist any entrants who cannot exit the space on their own. These teams can be comprised of company personnel, including externally hired services or a local emergency response team. Because there needs to be a prompt response in these situations, OSHA specifically addresses the requirements of the entrant’s employer to fully evaluate the capabilities of these rescue teams.

Post-Rescue Review

Once a rescue is complete, it is important to review how the rescue went and what can be learned from the experience. Do changes need to be made to the rescue plan if the confined space is going to be accessed in the future? Does your PPE need to be checked and should any of it be decommissioned and different or should new PPE ordered?

PPE and Other Products You May Need

As part of a rescue plan and the hazard assessment conducted for each confined space entry, make sure you have identified what PPE and other equipment, such as air monitoring/gas detection instruments, are needed. Also, be sure everything is available in stock on the premises, the location is known, the equipment is clean and is in good working order before commencing any access work.

When it comes to considering the equipment for a rescue start with understanding the ABC’s of confined space:

  • Anchorage systems such as davits, pole hoists, tripods
  • Body support, which means full body harnesses, and in some cases, boatswain (bosun) chairs
  • Connecting devices such as self-retracting lifelines and retrievals
  • Detection for air monitoring of gases, vapors, particulates, fumes and other hazardous substances
  • Education courses that help teach proper techniques
  • Full body coverage for employees who should be protected from head to toe based on hazards identified in the risk assessment, including hard hats, safety glasses, hearing protection, advanced communication devices, respiratory protection, clothing that protects the body against chemicals, fires and other hazards such as coveralls, as well as gloves and safety shoes that protect the hands and feet

Are You Ready if a Rescue/Retrieval Becomes Necessary?

Proactively identifying a proper rescue plan, seeking out appropriate training and identifying the right equipment long before any rescue is ever attempted is crucial. You need to be prepared so that if you are faced with saving someone who is stuck, has collapsed, or has ceased to respond from inside a confined space, you are ready for the situation.

We know there is a lot to consider when it comes to planning for, working in and rescuing someone from inside a confined space. Explore the resources available at 3m.com/confinedspace.


  1. https://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfoi/cfch0015.pdf