Deaths due to carbon monoxide have caused many families to begin installing detectors in their homes in recent decades. The reality, however, is that carbon monoxide on the job is even more of a threat to safety for many workers than poisoning at home. In this blog post, we’re going to go through carbon monoxide exposure in the workplace entirely, including what exactly carbon monoxide is, why it’s dangerous, and how to prevent work exposure and poisoning on job sites.
Carbon Monoxide in Construction
What is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide, or CO to use its chemical name, is the byproduct of combustion reactions, or the burning of certain fuels. Gasoline powered engines, natural gas heating systems, oil, coal, propane, wood and other materials also emit CO when burned. Carbon monoxide is not only dangerous because of its inhibiting of the body’s ability to transport oxygen (more on this in a second) but also because it cannot be seen, tasted, or even smelled by human beings; this often leads to gradual build ups to lethal levels in which workers don’t even know they’re exposed until they start to feel symptoms, by which point it may already be too late for them to remove themselves from the polluted area without external help and immediate medical attention.
How Carbon Monoxide Harms and Kills
Alright, so now you known exactly what CO is, but how does it actually cause harm to the body? As previous stated, CO inhibits your blood’s ability to transport oxygen. Since I’m not a scientist or doctor, however, it might be best if I defer to this explanation from the Centers for Disease Control website:
Exposure to carbon monoxide impedes the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to body tissues and vital organs. When carbon monoxide is inhaled, it combines with hemoglobin (an iron-protein component of red blood cells), producing carboxyhemoglobin (COHb), which greatly diminishes hemoglobin’s oxygen-carrying capacity. Hemoglobin’s binding affinity for carbon monoxide is 300 times greater than its affinity for oxygen. As a result, small amounts of carbon monoxide can dramatically reduce hemoglobin’s ability to transport oxygen.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Carbon Monoxide
The long and short of it is that, with diminished oxygen in the bloodstream, your vital organs will be unable to function properly. The first to get deprived, as it is dependent on abundant oxygen to function, is the brain, which makes some of the first detectable symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning headache, dizziness, and drowsiness. With enough exposure, those affected may also begin to breath more rapidly than normal in an attempt to intake more oxygen, become weak, and become easily confused/unable to make decisions. Even when death does not occur, serious and sometimes irreversible brain and heart damage may still result.
Risk in the Workplace
In the workplace, the largest CO risk to employees comes from gas-burning engines in machines like portable generators, gas-powered power tools and saws, space heaters, and other appliances. In the video above, a real incident in which two workers died due to CO exposure is depicted in detail.
Basically, the two workers were cutting windows in the basement level of a house and were using a gas powered wet saw to cut through the concrete. They had sealed off both of the previous windows they’d cut while working, likely to avoid debris from entering the frame before the window could be placed, and continued on with their task. Unfortunately, this left nowhere for the carbon monoxide from their saw’s engine to go, and, over a period of hours, the room became contaminated to deadly levels. By the time the first worker started to feel a headache, both workers were too far gone and collapsed while trying to get to the stairs. Co-workers found them dead several hours later.
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This is just one of many real life, tragic carbon monoxide poisoning episodes on record, and highlights the need for worker and employer knowledge and training on these risks which, despite being invisible, are very, very real. Now let’s take a look at some ways in which these accidental deaths can be avoided.
Ventilation: One of the biggest problems in the scenario above was the fact that the sealed basement windows meant that there was nowhere for the CO to go besides into the room itself. In any project in which you know or suspect that CO will be produced, you need to ensure that proper ventilation is present in any room or work space so that it can leave freely. Depending on the specific conditions of the work environment, passive ventilation (i.e. without fans) might not be enough, and you may need to employ fans or filtration systems to help cycle air by bringing in fresh air or drawing CO out.
Tools: At all costs, closed in spaces shouldn’t be work sites where gas-powered tools and machines are being used. There are generally alternatives that you can use (such as electric hydraulic saws and hammers, etc.). In some cases, where electrical outlets might not be present due to a new building site, you might need to use a gas generator to provide power for your other tools and tasks. If this is the case, keep in mind ventilation as well as…
Breathing Apparatus: In environments where exposure is unavoidable, employees need to be provided with breathing systems that can filter out CO or provide them with canisters of clean, breathable air. These masks cannot be simple large-pore filters either, they need to be fitted with an airtight seal to the face and filter air at the molecular level. This kind of equipment can get extremely costly very quickly, depending on the number of workers that need to be covered, so it may be in your best interests to try other methods of altering a work site before going down this route.
Safety Signs: Safety signs can help communicate to employees the hazards that are located within the area. When safety signs (like this one) feature pertinent information regarding the risks in the area such as carbon monoxide, employees can act accordingly since they are able to understand and acknowledge the potential for health risks.
Monitoring: Regardless of the preventative measures you use, you can’t be simply guessing at whether or not CO will be present, or if it will be present in such an amount as to pose a threat. Effective CO monitoring machines need to be used before workers enter an enclosed work site, and then used again throughout the day to monitor levels. Additionally, you should install carbon monoxide alarms, such as those made for home use, with an auditory alert so that workers have enough warning to remove themselves from a dangerous situation if it arises.
Training: Making sure your own employees know the types of hazards that can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning is a large part of proactive safety. If they can identify risks on their own while working on the job site, there will be less overall supervision required. If the workers in the video example had been educated about CO poisoning, they would have known better that to use a gas-powered tool in an enclosed, unventilated space, and might still be alive today.
Ultimately, the responsibility falls squarely on your shoulders as a safety manager and/or business owner, and all of your efforts must be carefully planned and thought out. When administering training, it’s up to you to make sure that teachings are effective and that workers retain what they are taught. In any event, even just the simple education provided by sharing an article like this one with your employees could save a life.