Properly Ventilating Worksite Combustion Equipment Is a Must

By Safety Management Group

Every preventable workplace death saddens and frustrates safety professionals, because they know if the right steps had been taken, the right procedures had been followed, or the correct equipment had been in place, a life would have been saved.

Some causes of workplace deaths are more frustrating than others, though, and one cause that can be particularly vexing is carbon monoxide poisoning. Even if a carbon monoxide problem doesn’t result in death, it can have long-term harm that will impact a worker’s quality of life decades down the road.

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Because carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless, and because its effects are often unnoticed until it is too late for a victim to take action — if he or she notices at all — it has earned a reputation as a silent killer in the workplace. It’s also a killer whose power is underestimated and misunderstood. All too often, carbon monoxide kills workers who were certain that they had adequate ventilation or were using equipment that produced far too little of the gas to cause problems.

In this article, we’ll examine the nature of carbon monoxide, detail its effects and the warning signs of poisoning, and discuss ways to prevent poisoning when using combustion equipment in the workplace.

About carbon monoxide
When any type of combustion occurs, carbon monoxide is a natural byproduct. It results from burning materials such as gasoline, kerosene, propane, and even wood. It can also be the result of incomplete combustion of materials such as natural gas. Beyond the fact that it is colorless and odorless, it is often present within other combustion gases, which can create a false sense of security.

Carbon monoxide typically is present on construction sites for one of three reasons: the use of gasoline-powered tools such as compressors and pressure washers, vehicles idling or operating near workers, or improperly vented space conditioning equipment.

There is a common misconception among workers that gasoline-powered tools or fuel-powered portable heaters are safe to use if a room or workspace is large enough. However, carbon monoxide can accumulate to dangerous levels in a matter of minutes. Simply opening a window or door (or placing a fan in the area) may not reduce carbon monoxide to safe levels.

Another common problem is that a worker may have used the equipment in the past without any problems, creating a false belief that it is safe. What may not have been dangerous in one setting may be deadly in another.

What it does to people
The reason that carbon monoxide is so dangerous is that it displaces oxygen in the bloodstream. Red blood cells can absorb the poisonous gas much more quickly and easily than oxygen. As carbon monoxide accumulates in the bloodstream, tissues and organs that depend upon a steady supply of oxygen may be impaired or destroyed in a matter of minutes. That includes the brain and the heart. Once enough carbon monoxide is absorbed, the worker may experience confusion and will gradually lose consciousness. Eventually, the lack of oxygen will cause fatal suffocation.

Complicating the danger is the fact that the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are common to other problems. In most cases, the early signs include headache, nausea, weakness, visual problems, dizziness, and/or chest pains — all symptoms that are easily misattributed to other causes. Victims may also become confused or undergo personality changes. Once symptoms begin, they typically intensify rapidly, incapacitating the victim before he or she recognizes the danger of the situation. Longer-term exposure to carbon monoxide has even been cited as a contributing factor in dementia and psychiatric problems.

Steps to take upon exposure
When working around combustion equipment, workers should be made aware of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, and should monitor the condition of those around them. Any complaints of the symptoms mentioned earlier must be taken seriously. Because carbon monoxide can overcome a victim so quickly and unexpectedly, it’s critical to err on the side of caution.

The equipment should be shut down, and the worker should be moved outside or to another location away from the source. Transport the victim to an emergency room or other medical facility — do not allow him or her to drive. If the symptoms are serious, call 911for medical assistance, and if pure oxygen is available, supply it to the victim using a mask.

If a worker appears to have been overcome by carbon monoxide, proceed very carefully with any rescue attempts. Often, others who come to the aid of victims end up being overcome by the gas. If carbon monoxide concentrations have reached dangerous levels, it may be better to wait for properly trained first responders. Other workers should not enter the contaminated area until the air has been tested and returned to safe levels. (OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limit for carbon monoxide is 50 parts per million.)

Ways to prevent the dangers
As with most workplace hazards, the best way to address carbon monoxide is to eliminate the hazard, perhaps by substituting equipment that does not use combustion. However, there are times when this may not be practical, such as when a simple repair or cleaning must be performed in a confined area. In those situations, the goal shifts to finding a way to engineer exposure to safe levels.

If the design of the workplace and the choice of equipment cannot be changed to eliminate the hazard, steps should be taken to reduce it. Typically, this involves either relocating the equipment, improving the ventilation, or providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to the workers who will be exposed to carbon monoxide.

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