Don’t Hibernate on Carbon Monoxide Risk
Many look forward to winter’s cozy atmosphere, but just because the bears are hibernating doesn’t mean that other dangers are. Has your carbon monoxide detector been checked recently?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “Carbon monoxide (CO) exposures and poisonings occur more often during the fall and winter, when people are more likely to use gas furnaces and heaters.” This may also be because most people are spending more time indoors, and there is a greater potential for ventilation systems to be blocked due to leaves, snow, ice, and other seasonal obstructions. But why is carbon monoxide such a concern?
Humans rely on their senses to perceive danger, and the most menacing threats are usually those that are hardest to detect. Unfortunately, carbon monoxide gas is not only highly toxic, but also virtually undetectable, it is:
- Colorless, so it cannot be seen
- Soundless, so it cannot be heard
- Odorless, so it cannot be smelled or tasted; and
- Formless, so it cannot be touched.
Carbon monoxide is alternatively referred to as “the silent killer,” because individuals can easily be exposed to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and not even realize it until it is too late. However, there are many simple countermeasures that can drastically reduce the likelihood of carbon monoxide poisoning.
What is carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide, or CO, is a chemical compound that can be a byproduct of thermal combustion. Common sources include gas-operated generators, power tools, compressors, pumps, welding equipment, space heaters, and furnaces, as well as vehicles equipped with internal combustion engines. These common sources mean that most people encounter CO to some degree on a regular basis. However, CO exposure can become a hazard when:
- Fuel or other materials containing carbon, such as natural gas, gasoline, kerosene, oil, propane, coal, or wood, are burned inefficiently
- Flues, air intakes, or vents that regulate CO output become blocked, causing toxic buildup
- Equipment that produces CO is used indoors, in enclosed spaces, or in poorly ventilated areas
Why is carbon monoxide so dangerous?
When we breathe, oxygen enters our system through the lungs and pairs up with hemoglobin, which transports it through the bloodstream. If CO is inhaled, it also pairs with hemoglobin, but at an exponentially faster rate than oxygen. This can swiftly cause the respiratory system to become flooded with CO instead of oxygen, causing suffocation and other complications to set in rapidly.
What are the signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?
Since CO is so difficult to detect through the senses, the signs and symptoms of poisoning are one of the only tangible indicators of CO toxicity apart from mechanical alarms or detectors.
Warning signs of concentrated exposure include:
- Chest tightness
Results of prolonged exposure include:
- Worsening warning signs
- Loss of consciousness
- Muscle weakness
Severe exposure can cause:
- Capillary hemorrhaging
- Permanent damage of nerve tissues and brain cells
Depending on the situation and the concentration of CO in the air, this progression of symptoms can take a matter of hours, or mere minutes. Vulnerable individuals such as babies and children, the elderly, those with lung or heart disease, those living at high altitudes, or those who already have elevated CO blood levels, such as smokers, may succumb to exposure even more rapidly.
Sometimes, even those who are rescued and recover from CO poisoning still may suffer permanent effects such as nerve, brain, or heart damage. When it comes to prevention, the timing of both detection and response is critical.
How should someone respond to suspected carbon monoxide poisoning?
The following steps are recommended if you believe yourself or others are suffering from CO poisoning. Remember, time is of the essence, so encourage your employees to take swift and decisive action if they are at all suspicious of carbon monoxide as the culprit:
- Immediately evacuate yourself and others from the affected area
- Immediately relocate victims to fresh air in an open area
- Call 911 or another local emergency number for medical assistance
- Stay on the line and follow all directions from emergency responders
Remember, evacuating victims to an unaffected area is a vital first step, both to stop the damage the victim is experiencing, as well as to prevent responders from succumbing to poisoning themselves. Remaining in an affected area could further compromise victims, as well as cause responders to be overcome.
What are ways to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning?
- Regularly maintain all equipment and appliances that can produce CO
- Install ventilation systems in areas that may be susceptible to CO buildup
- Regularly maintain all air intakes, flues, and vents
- Install CO detectors equipped with alarms in all facilities, and train employees in proper response procedures if they are triggered
- Consider potential alternatives for any indoor equipment or appliances that produce CO
- Prohibit the use of equipment or tools that produce CO in enclosed or poorly ventilated areas (in many cases, simply opening nearby doors or windows is not a guarantee of sufficient ventilation)
- Consider providing personal CO monitors to employees at high risk for poisoning (see OSHA Fact Sheet for a list of high-risk occupations) or for those that frequently use equipment or appliances that produce CO
- Educate workers about the causes, symptoms, and response to CO poisoning and exposure.
In addition, employees should be trained to recognize and report the following occurrences:
- Situations that might cause CO accumulation
- Air circulation and ventilation problems
- Scenarios involving the use of gas-powered tools or equipment indoors or in other enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces
- CO poisoning warning signs (dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, etc.)
Carbon monoxide poisoning is preventable. Awareness and education are one of the most effective ways to prevent poisoning injuries among your workforce, and regularly maintained carbon monoxide detectors are a must. Don’t hibernate on carbon monoxide risk – protect yourself and others this winter and all year round.
Information for this article was taken from the following sources: