MDPH Issues Safety Alert on CO Poisoning at Work

Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a poisonous, colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas produced by burning fuel, such as gasoline, kerosene, oil, propane, coal, or wood. You can suffer CO poisoning and not even realize it because symptoms--including muscle weakness, headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and confusion--are similar to the flu, but without the fever. When fuel-burning equipment, tools, and appliances are used in enclosed places, or places without good ventilation, CO levels can build up quickly. At the workplace, common sources of CO include forklifts, concrete saws, generators, space heaters, pressure washers, and compressors.

These are some of the myriad facts about the dangers of CO in the workplace contained in a new safety alert from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which warns that CO poisoning can and does kill. The alert notes that from 2005 through 2006, six workers died as a result of CO poisoning while at work in Massachusetts. These deaths included two tile installers, a 48-year-old male and a 52-year-old female, who succumbed while installing tile in a home under construction; there was a gasoline-powered generator operating in the garage and a propane heater operating in the house. Likewise, a 54-year-old male mechanic died from CO poisoning while sitting in a box truck's cab with a gasoline-powered generator operating in the back of the truck. "As with most work-related fatalities, these deaths could have been prevented," the alert says.

MDPH points out in the alert that CO poisoning can be reversed if caught in time, but even if workers recover, the poisoning may result in permanent damage to the parts of the body that require a lot of oxygen, such as the heart and brain. To prevent CO poisoning in the workplace, the department says employers should take these measures:

  • Avoid using fuel-burning equipment indoors or in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces, such as inside houses, garages, crawl spaces, basements, storage areas and tanks.
  • Place fuel-burning equipment outdoors away from windows, doors, or vents that could allow CO to enter and build up in the work area.
  • Use tools powered by electricity, batteries, or compressed air when working indoors.
  • If fuel-burning equipment must be used indoors, be sure to vent equipment exhaust outdoors and provide fresh air ventilation to the work area. Even with doors and windows open, CO levels from fuel-burning equipment can still reach dangerously high levels quickly.

The complete two-page safety alert, which includes other tips and links to health and safety resources, is available online at http://www.mass.gov/Eeohhs2/docs/dph/occupational_health/carbon_monoxide.pdf.

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