Respiratory Equipment In Confined Spaces: How RPE Minimises Risk For Workers And Rescuers Alike

A confined space rescue team demonstrating their training with an example of the types of situations they might face on the job and how their expertise can help to minimise risk.


Working in confined spaces presents numerous risks to workers, from potential exposure to hazardous gases and vapours, and low oxygen levels. In such environments, it’s vital to understand the importance of proper respiratory protection.Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) plays a crucial role in safeguarding the health and safety of workers and rescuers by minimising the risks to which they are exposed. In this article, we’ll explore the range of respiratory equipment for use in confined spaces and their role in mitigating dangers.

Respiratory Protection Equipment & Management

The Dangers Of Confined Spaces

According to the Health and Safety Executive, workers should, where possible, avoid carrying out tasks in confined spaces. Where this is impractical, the employer should evaluate the risks and devise effective mitigation to safeguard staff from:
  • Respirable Hazards: As well as fumes and vapours, workers may be affected by other respirable hazards, such as dust or toxic gases, which may be inhaled and may cause life-limiting respiratory illnesses.
  • Low Oxygen Levels: Hypoxic environments, defined as spaces where there is a reduced level of oxygen, can cause a range of symptoms, including overconfidence, euphoria, shortness of breath, wheezing, headaches, confusion, and a lack of physical coordination and strength. In Canada, 60 per cent of deaths in confined spaces are a result of low oxygen levels.

Hazards in confined spaces can be dynamic and due to the nature of the space, even a small change in the atmosphere can have a significant impact on the worker – this is why everyone, supervisors, managers and workers must all be suitably trained and aware of the potential changes that might occur as the work progresses.

The Importance Of Confined Space Breathing Apparatus

So, what types of respiratory protection equipment are suitable for work in confined space environments? It depends very much on the nature of the risk; the worker and the work being done!

Air-Purifying Respirator

In situations where the oxygen concentration in the confined space is safe (will not change) and contaminants are identified, an Air-Purifying Respirator (APR) may be suitable. APRs can remove certain hazards such as particulates, gases, and vapours through an appropriate filtration media, providing the worker with cleaner breathing air. As protection factors provided by APRs are limited these respirators are only effective when the air quality can be assured, controlled and monitored. These can provide a cost-effective solution for respiratory protection in confined spaces.

Supplied Air Respirator

The Supplied Air Respirator (SAR) relies on an external air source that is connected to a hose to deliver clean air to the worker. SARs are particularly useful when the worker is operating in a confined space for a long period as they provide a continuous flow of fresh air, reducing the risk of respiratory distress and enabling personnel to focus on their work without compromising their safety. Again, the level of protection is variable depending on the system design so this type of RPE should only be used where the air quality can be assured, controlled and monitored.  These can provide a more comfortable solution for respiratory protection in confined spaces. Constant flow air supply systems typically provide a lower level of protection than positive pressure systems which will include a tight-fitting face piece. Look out for further information on these in future blogs!

Escape Respirators

If the nature of the confined space is such that the quality of the air might change then in case of emergency scenarios where workers need to evacuate a confined space, Escape Respirators may be required. These provide a short-term supply of breathable air. Compact and lightweight, they are designed to be worn in emergency evacuations only typically with a duration of 10 or 15 minutes. It is important to note these are for emergency escape only, not for rescue or recovery!

Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus

Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) provides workers with a clean air supply from a compressed air cylinder into a facepiece. This type of respiratory protection is considered essential in situations where the oxygen concentration is less than normal or when the air is contaminated with toxic gases or vapours. By ensuring a continuous supply of breathable air, SCBAs enable workers to operate safely in oxygen-deficient or hazardous environments. They provide a high level of protection and may be used in areas of high risk or for rescue and recovery of casualties. Because the air supply is limited, airline positive pressure equipment may need to be considered for workers in confined spaces where the time required inside the space is longer than 30 mins or so. Or where the size of the space means that carrying a cylinder might impinge on the ability of the worker to move freely.

Important Points To Note

  • To select the appropriate RPE for confined spaces, a confined space risk assessment should be conducted to assess oxygen levels and potential contaminants and determine the duration of work required.

  • Workers must be trained in the use of respiratory equipment including donning and doffing procedures, inspection protocols, and the importance of regular maintenance.

  • Regular inspection and maintenance of RPE are essential to guarantee its effectiveness, including periodic checks, filter replacements, and equipment calibration.

Contact Us

To find out more about the dangers of working in confined spaces and the services we offer to help mitigate that risk, please get in touch by calling us on 01743 761000.