Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Businesses

Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Businesses

Carbon monoxide (CO), a colourless, tasteless and odourless poisonous gas, is a byproduct of the incomplete burning of carbon-containing material. This gas can quickly accumulate in areas where employees work, even if the space appears well-ventilated. Exposure to CO can cause serious health problems and even death.

Considering these hazards, businesses must take steps to ensure their workplace is safe from CO exposure. This article explores the common causes of CO poisoning in businesses, describes the signs of CO poisoning and the employees at higher risk, and provides practical steps to minimize this risk.

Common Causes of CO Poisoning in Businesses

The Canada Safety Council reports that CO is mainly produced by the incomplete burning of fossil fuels, especially in gas-fired appliances. When the fuel doesn’t fully burn, excess CO is emitted.

Common CO sources are:

  • Faulty appliances, such as furnaces, water heaters or gas stoves that improperly burn fuel and release CO into the workplace
  • Internal combustion engines, such as those used by many cars, trucks, forklifts and other machines
  • Equipment and power tools like portable generators, lawn equipment and power washers that run on gasoline

When CO is present in a workplace, certain signs may be noticeable, including:

  • Streaks of soot around appliances or fallen soot inside a fireplace
  • Excess moisture or condensation on surfaces
  • Excess rust on pipes
  • Yellow or orange flames (instead of blue) in combustion appliances
  • Water leaking from vents or flue pipes
  • Damaged or discoloured bricks on top of the chimney or an absence of an upward draft

Employees at High Risk of CO Poisoning

Many businesses have equipment, appliances and machines that have the potential to produce CO, but employees in specific industries and roles may be at a higher risk due to the nature of their jobs. Here are examples of who may be at an elevated risk of CO poisoning:

  • Cooks and bakers
  • Blast furnace and boiler room workers
  • Mechanics
  • Welders
  • Pulp and paper producers
  • Forklift and diesel engine operators
  • Steel producers
  • Metal oxide reducers
  • Petroleum refiners

Signs of CO Poisoning

When inhaled, CO displaces oxygen in the blood, which can lead to oxygen starvation in vital organs. Recognizing these varying signs of CO poisoning is essential to help prevent serious injury or death:

  • Early symptoms: Early CO poisoning symptoms often mimic the flu and include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea and chest pain. These can be mistaken for other illnesses.
  • Severe symptoms: Prolonged or high levels of CO exposure lead to confusion, vomiting, muscle weakness, collapse and loss of consciousness. Neurological symptoms and cardiac issues may also occur.

It is important to note that symptoms can vary by person, and some populations are more susceptible to CO poisoning, including older people; young children; those with preexisting heart or long-term conditions; those who work at high altitudes; and those with anemia, sickle cell anemia and elevated CO blood levels (e.g., smokers). CO poisoning also poses unique risks to pregnant workers and their unborn children.
CO poisoning can be reversed if it is caught in time. However, acute poisoning may cause permanent damage to body parts that require high oxygen levels, such as the brain and heart.

Steps to Minimize CO Risks

With the severity of CO hazards, businesses need to take steps to eliminate or reduce the potential for CO-related injuries or fatalities. Measures to take include:

  • Ensure proper installation of equipment, appliances or other machines that may produce CO. This can be accomplished by following applicable manufacturer instructions and local building codes and regulations.
  • Conduct regular inspections. Professionals should inspect heating systems, chimneys, flues, and other equipment that could produce CO annually. Air in spaces where CO may be present should also be regularly tested for the presence of the gas.
  • Educate employees. Staff should be trained on CO risks, symptoms and emergency procedures. They must also be encouraged to report any suspicious odours or symptoms, avoid overexertion if they suspect CO poisoning and leave contaminated areas.
  • Check for proper ventilation. Adequate ventilation is vital in enclosed spaces where fuel-burning equipment operates. Avoid running equipment that could produce CO near open doors or windows or near air intakes.
  • Utilize CO detectors. CO detectors should be installed near potential CO sources (e.g., boiler rooms, garages, kitchens) and routinely tested. Batteries should be replaced regularly. If an employee is at a heightened risk of CO exposure, they should be provided with a personal CO monitor.
  • Prohibit indoor use of gas-powered equipment. Gasoline-powered tools or equipment (e.g., generators, concrete cutting saws, high-pressure washers, and floor buffers) should be prohibited indoors or in poorly ventilated areas. Where appropriate, businesses should consider alternative power supplies (e.g., batteries, electricity, or compressed air) instead of diesel or petrol-powered equipment.
  • Provide personal protective equipment (PPE). Ensure that employees who work in areas with potentially high CO concentrations have access to proper PPE (e.g., self-contained breathing apparatus) and know how to use it.
  • Emergency response plan. Employers must develop and communicate an emergency plan for CO incidents. Such a plan should include procedures for evacuation and providing medical assistance.

Employers must ensure safe working conditions for their employees. Being aware of the risks of CO and taking proactive steps to eliminate or mitigate those hazards can help accomplish this goal.

For more information on risk management or to find out how to reduce your insurance costs call CMB at 780.424.2727 or click here to get a quote