Almost 50,000 people visit emergency rooms in the U.S. every year suffering from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Often referred to as the silent killer, carbon monoxide is odourless, colourless and notoriously difficult to detect. An additional 430 individuals die from this mostly preventable poisoning every year.

The Silent Killer

Carbon monoxide is a highly poisonous gas that, in addition to being odourless and colourless, is also tasteless. Because of this, it is frequently mixed with other gases that have an odour.

In high enough quantities, carbon monoxide can overwhelm workers in a matter of minutes, quickly leading to a loss of consciousness and suffocation.

Red blood cells absorb carbon monoxide far more quickly than they do oxygen. If levels of carbon monoxide are high enough, it can soon overwhelm oxygen in red blood cells. Inhaling carbon monoxide eventually deprives the heart, brain and other internal organs of the oxygen they need to function normally.

Common Workplace Sources

Carbon monoxide is a common hazard in many industries and is one of the leading causes of workplace poisoning. It is often the result of incomplete burning of materials that contain carbon. These sources can include natural gas, gasoline, kerosene, oil, propane, coal, and wood. It is also found in the fumes produced by furnaces, kerosene heaters, stoves, lanterns, gas ranges and portable generators.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), occupations including welders, forklift operators, and public safety personnel (fire, police and emergency first responders) are most at risk for potential carbon monoxide poisoning. People who work in confined spaces also have an increased exposure risk.

The internal combustion engine is one of the most common sources of carbon monoxide in the workplace. Working in or around vehicles or in a confined space also puts workers at an increased risk of exposure. In addition to work involving automobiles and engines, other work environments with heightened exposure risk include boiler rooms, blast furnaces and coke ovens. This puts a variety of workplaces at risk including breweries, warehouses, petroleum refineries, pulp, paper and steel producers, and marine terminals.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning vary widely and can be very similar to the flu. Some people, including those working at high altitudes or those who smoke, already have heightened levels of carbon monoxide in their bloodstream. This puts them at an increased risk of suffering more severe symptoms.

The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. Prolonged or suddenly high levels of exposure can lead to much more severe symptoms such as vomiting, confusion, loss of consciousness and muscle weakness. The most severe cases of exposure can lead to death.

One of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning is that there are no physical signs of the gas. People who are sleeping or who have been drinking alcohol can die from carbon monoxide poisoning before ever experiencing symptoms.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is treatable if it is caught in its early stages. However, if the poisoning is severe enough, it can lead to permanent organ damage, especially to the heart or brain which require high levels of oxygen to function correctly. Carbon monoxide exposure is also linked to fertility issues.

Treating Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

If a worker is experiencing a possible carbon monoxide poisoning, call 911 immediately and move the exposed worker to the open air as quickly as possible.

Once the worker is transported to the hospital, doctors will use a blood test to determine the amount of exposure. Mild exposure can usually be treated with 100% oxygen. More serious exposures may require the use of a hyperbaric chamber to speed up the replacement of carbon monoxide with oxygen.

Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide poisoning is entirely preventable. However, education is vital. Train your workers and managers in recognizing potential sources and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. Provide additional training on specific exposure controls designed to prevent poisoning. Proper housekeeping is also critical. Maintain and regularly service systems that produce carbon monoxide. Keep vents and flues free of debris that could block existing ventilation lines.

To keep your workers safe from carbon monoxide poisoning, OSHA and other agencies recommend these additional exposure controls:

  • Prohibit the use of gasoline-powered engines inside enclosed or poorly ventilated structures.
  • Avoid running gasoline-powered engines less than 20 feet from an open window, door or vent.
  • Test air regularly where carbon monoxide may be present. Know the latest National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and OSHA rules concerning exposure limits.
  • Install ventilation systems designed to remove carbon monoxide from work areas.
  • Consider switching to equipment powered by electricity, batteries and compressed air rather than gasoline.
  • Install carbon monoxide detectors with both audible and visual alarms.

Educating your workers and putting in safeguards in place can protect your workplace from entirely preventable carbon monoxide poisoning.