Carbon Monoxide: Silent But Deadly

It's known as the silent killer - the poisonous gas that you can't see, smell,
taste or touch. However what carbon monoxide (CO) lacks in personality, it
makes up for in potency. CO poisoning is responsible for hundreds of deaths,
and thousands of hospital visits every year in North America. A common and
deadly hazard, CO results from the incomplete burning of natural gas and any
other material containing carbon such as gasoline, kerosene, oil, propane,
coal, or wood. Cigarette smoke and motor vehicle exhaust are also sources of CO.

Health Effects of CO

When we breathe in carbon monoxide, it interferes with the ability of red blood
cells to carry oxygen to the heart, brain, and other vital organs. Exposure to
very high concentrations can overcome a person in minutes with few or no
warning signs and result in coma or death. Hence the extreme danger of this gas.

The initial symptoms of poisoning are similar to the flu (but without the
fever). They include tightness across the chest, headache, fatigue, dizziness,
drowsiness, or nausea. As symptoms worsen the victim may experience muscle
weakness, vomiting, confusion, and even collapse, losing consciousness. The
sense of confusion, caused by this gas, can interfere with the victim's ability
to realize that their life is in danger.

Workplaces at risk

Internal combustion engines are the most common source of CO in the workplace.
There is also a risk of exposure in boiler rooms, warehouses, petroleum
refineries, blast furnaces, steel production and pulp and paper production.
Farmers have been poisoned by CO while using motorized equipment such as
gasoline pressure washers inside barns. While workers in confined spaces, such
as mines are at risk, harmful levels of CO can also be present in large
buildings or outdoor areas. Other occupations with risk of CO exposure are taxi
drivers, welders and garage mechanics. Emergency workers entering uncontrolled
environments without wearing a carbon monoxide detector have also been subject
to serious injury and even death.

What employers can do

  • Install an effective ventilation system that will remove carbon monoxide from work areas.

  • Maintain water heaters, space heaters, cooking ranges, and other potentialCO-producing equipment in good working order.

  • As an alternative to gasoline-powered equipment, use equipment powered by electricity, batteries, or compressed air.

  • Install reliable CO detector alarms that give both visual and audible warnings immediately.

  • Don't allow the use of gasoline-powered engines or tools in poorly ventilated areas.

  • Test air quality regularly in areas where CO may be present, including confined spaces.

  • Have your employees wear a certified, full-facepiece pressure-demand self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) or a combination full-facepiece pressure demand supplied-air respirator with auxiliary self contained air supply in areas with high CO concentrations.

  • If your employees are working in confined spaces where the presence of CO is suspected, you must ensure that the air quality is tested before anyone enters.

  • Educate workers who may be exposed to CO. They must know the sources and symptoms, how to protect themselves, how to recognize symptoms in co-workers, and how to respond in case of an emergency.

Employees have a part to play

Employees, too, can help prevent CO poisoning by reporting any potential CO
hazards to the employer, and looking out for ventilation problems - especially
in enclosed areas where gases of burning fuels may be released. Don't use
gas-powered engines in an enclosed space. Report complaints of dizziness,
drowsiness, or nausea if you suspect CO poisoning, and leave the contaminated
area immediately. If you get sick, tell your doctor that you may have been
exposed to CO.

Protect yourself from CO exposure at home

The news has been riddled with reports of deaths and illnesses from CO
poisonings. We are in the cold weather months and many deaths occur as the
result of defective or poorly operated home heating devices. Follow these
life-saving tips to protect you and your family:

  • Install CO detectors in your home that have both audible and visual alarms. If battery-operated, replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall.

  • Never burn anything in a stove or fireplace that isn't vented. Don't use an oven as a heat source.

  • When indoors, do not use portable flameless chemical heaters, gas camping stoves or generators and never burn charcoal.

  • Never run a car or truck in the garage with the garage door shut or in a garage that is attached to a house.

Further Information - Source: Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety