Confined spaces on farms

This alert highlights the danger of farmers sustaining serious or fatal injuries from entering a potentially hazardous confined space such as a tank, vat, silo or container.

Published: 01 June 2017


In a recent incident a farmer entered a tank (confined space) to clean it. The farmer collapsed after being overcome by toxic fumes.

Two of the farmer’s sons went inside the tank to help him, but were also overcome by the toxic fumes. Events like this have the potential to result in multiple fatalities as people, unaware of the risks, often enter a confined space to help a victim and in some cases, collapse due to the exposure to fumes and/or absence of breathable air. The presence of a harmful level of any contaminant within the atmosphere of a confined space may not be obvious. Therefore there may be no warning or opportunity to exit as the harmful effects of exposure may be immediate.

What is a confined space?

Confined spaces include space in a vat, tank, pit, pipe, container, trench or tunnel or other similar enclosed or partially enclosed structure, if the space meets certain conditions. A confined space is determined by the following associated hazards (and not just because the work is performed in a physically restrictive location):

  • restricted entry or exit,
  • a hazardous atmosphere (ie an atmosphere that has a harmful level of any contaminant or does not have a safe oxygen level),
  • risk of engulfment by any stored substance (except liquids).

The harmful effects of a physical or chemical agent are greater in a confined space and may expose a person in the space to a possible life threatening situation.

Specific examples of possible confined spaces on a farm may include any hopper, grain silo, integrated feed system, vats (ie milk, cheese or wine), tanks (ie sewage, fuel and water) and manure pits.

Determining whether a space is a confined space

If you answer ‘yes’ to the following four questions, then the space in question is a confined space:

Is the space enclosed or partially enclosed?

  • Is it likely to be entered and is it a normal atmospheric pressure? Does the space have a limited or restricted entry or exit?
  • Does the space contain, is it intended to contain, or is it likely to contain:
    • an atmosphere that has a harmful levels of contaminant
    • an unsafe oxygen level, or - a stored solid that could cause engulfment?

Once you have determined the confined spaces at your farm, you must identify the associated hazards. Use WorkSafe’s Compliance Code – Confined spaces to help you do this. It is your duty to control any risk associated with work in confined spaces, so far as reasonably practicable.

Controlling the risks

  • Firstly, consider whether the work can be done another way without entering the confined space (eg provide outlets and facilities for cleaning to eliminate the need for entry).
  • Test the atmosphere to quantify as far as possible, the level of oxygen, atmospheric contaminants and any flammable gas or vapour present in the space so you can determine appropriate risk controls.
  • Ensure your employees do not enter a confined space unless they have been issued with an entry permit for the space and there is a stand by person observing the work from outside the space.
  • Establish entry and exit procedures to and from the confined space, as well as emergency procedures.
    Ensure these are communicated to your employees.
  • Put signs on or in the immediate vicinity of any confined space to warn against entry by people other than those who have been properly trained and have an entry permit.
  • Provide the necessary information, instruction and training to your employees to enable them to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health.
  • Ensure appropriate respiratory protective equipment (air-supplied or air purifying) is used where required.

You should also see the WorkSafe Compliance Code – Confined spaces for further advice.

OHS Safety Essentials Program - WorkSafe also offers a free consultation service where an independent OHS consultant can visit your farm to help you identify hazards and provide a practical safety plan.

For further information, call Advisory on 1800 136 089.

Further information