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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in the Workplace

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According to Center for Disease Control and Health (CDC), carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, and toxic gas, which is predominately produced by incomplete combustion of carbon-containing materials. Incomplete combustion occurs when insufficient oxygen is used in the fuel (hydrocarbon) burning process – causing more carbon monoxide than carbon dioxide to be emitted.

Every year, more than 400 people unintentionally die in the U.S. from this “invisible killer,” and there are more than 20,000 emergency room visits and more than 4000 are hospitalized due to exposure to carbon monoxide.

Exposure and Symptoms

Carbon monoxide is produced by burning fuel in vehicles, furnaces, power plants, forklifts, small gasoline engines, heaters, stoves, portable generators – and the list goes on. When exposed to carbon monoxide, it impedes the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to body tissues and vital organs, depriving them the oxygen needed to function properly. Common initial exposure symptoms include headache, nausea, rapid breathing, tightness in the chest, weakness, exhaustion, dizziness, and confusion. Severe oxygen deficiency due to acute CO poisoning is called hypoxia, which may cause brain or heart damage.

You or Someone Else May Have Been Exposed to CO Poisoning?

If you believe you have been exposed to CO poisoning, or if you expect a co-worker is experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning, these actions could save lives:

  • Immediately remove yourself or move the victim to an open area with fresh air
  • Call 911
  • If victim is breathing, use a tight-fitting mask to administer 100 percent oxygen
  • If the victim has stopped breathing, administer CPR – but only if you have been properly trained to do so on victims of carbon monoxide poisoning as you may be exposed to fatal levels in a rescue attempt

Employer Steps to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Even though may be impossible to eliminate all risks, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the chances of CO poisoning in the workplace.

  • Effective ventilation systems installed to remove CO from work areas, and the system should be maintained on a regular schedule (follow manufacturer’s instructions)
  • All equipment that can produce CO should be identified as such and inspected on a regular basis as well
  • Equipment powered by gasoline should be evaluated for effectiveness and never used in poorly ventilated areas – and possibly switching to equipment that is powered by compressed air, batteries, or electricity
  • Employees should be educated on safe operations of the equipment and on carbon monoxide poisoning, including symptoms of CO poisoning and the appropriate steps to take if they or someone else suspects CO poisoning
  • Provide employees with personal carbon monoxide monitors
  • Test air frequently, especially in confined spaces
  • Provide self-contained breathing apparatuses and respirators when applicable

The best way to control this workplace safety hazard is to remove it entirely from the environment. If this is not possible, taking the steps above can help protect your most important assets – your employees.

Mr. Griffith has a received his bachelors degree in Environmental Health from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He is a Certified Industrial Hygienist and president of Workplace Safety & Health Company. He has over 35 years of industrial hygiene, safety, loss control and consulting experience. Chemical monitoring, noise measurement, program development and management, risk assessment and computer management of health and safety data are areas of particular strength. Mr. Griffith is a member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) at the local and national level. He is also active in the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE).

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