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Sahli Brenda P. PhD; Armstrong, Carl W. MD
Journal of Occupational Medicine: September 1992

To better understand the frequency and characteristics of occupational confined space fatalities in Virginia, we reviewed death certificates, workers' compensation files, a Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Administration listing, and medical examiner records for all 50 fatalities (41 accidents) reported during 1979 to 1986. All fatalities were identified in medical examiner records (50), more than in any other source. The majority of decedents were male craftsmen, operators, or laborers less than 50 years old (mean 38). Drug screens of the 43 decedents tested were negative, with the exception of 2 cases where blood alcohol was detected (>0.06%). Approximately 5% of “at work” civilian deaths (excluding plane, train, and motor vehicle fatalities) were confined space related. Virginia resident death rates per million employees were highest for shipbuilding and repair facilities (23.2), local government (8.9), and manufacturing other than shipbuilding (5.4). Multiple fatalities occurred in 4 (10%) of the accidents, with 3 involving 2 fatalities each, and 1 accident involving 7 fatalities. Three fatalities (6%) were rescuers. Fifty nonfatal injuries of rescuers were known to have occurred in these accidents, 15 of co-workers and 35 of community rescue personnel (firefighters and rescue squad members). Approximately half the accidents occurred during the fourth quarter of the year and on a Thursday or Friday, and about one third occurred at night. The leading accident type was atmospheric condition, most commonly oxygen deficiency (33%) or the presence of carbon monoxide (20%). In 6 (40%) of the 15 accidents involving atmospheric condition, the toxic gas or oxygen deficiency was absent in the confined space at the time of entry. Confined space accidents in the shipbuilding industry occurred exclusively in ship compartments; those in the public sector occurred in manholes and ship compartments. Accidents in the construction, manufacturing, and service industries occurred in a variety of settings, including pressure vessels, stacks, boxcars, and machinery. Entry into any confined space should be viewed as potentially dangerous, and persons who may be required to enter a confined space, including community rescue personnel, should be trained in the specified precautions to be taken. Continuous or repeated monitoring of a confined space atmosphere, rather than preentry testing alone, is advisable when there is a potential for deterioration of the atmosphere during occupancy

©1992 The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine