During winter, when the arctic chill sets in and heating systems are turned up, the risk for carbon monoxide poisoning increases. Carbon monoxide or CO is a toxic gas that you cannot smell, see or taste and, for this reason, it is known as the ‘silent killer’. Exposure to carbon monoxide is responsible for 50 accidental deaths in Canada each year [i] and 430 accidental deaths in the U.S. annually [ii]. There are also thousands of emergency department visits each year due to accidental CO poisoning.
Carbon Monoxide poisoning is the #1 cause of poisoning and it is preventable; recognizing symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure and dangerous situations that elevate your risk of CO poisoning is critical to prevent poisoning and death. Not only are we at risk in our homes for carbon monoxide exposure, but we are also at risk in our workplaces, so let’s review the hazards and symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure so we can prevent and create safe workplaces.
What Makes Carbon Monoxide So Hazardous?
Carbon monoxide is released whenever a fuel source (i.e. natural gas, gasoline, diesel, kerosene, oil, propane, coal or wood) is burned. Cigarette smoke and motor vehicle exhaust are also sources of carbon monoxide.
Because carbon monoxide is hard to detect, it makes the gas especially lethal. The risk of carbon monoxide exposure increases in confined or poorly ventilated spaces because toxic levels of the gas build up quickly with no way to exhaust or escape.
When people breathe in carbon monoxide, it interferes with the transport of oxygen by the blood. You can become overwhelmed by high levels of carbon monoxide within minutes with little to no warning resulting in the loss of consciousness, making the gas particularly dangerous.
What Are The Signs Of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?
Usually, the first sign of carbon monoxide exposure is nausea, headache and dizziness. People will complain of flu-like symptoms (without the fever); including, headache, tightness across the chest, shortness of breath, fatigue, dizziness, drowsiness, or nausea.
Symptoms of CO exposure can rapidly develop to muscle weakness, vomiting, confusion, and even collapse, losing consciousness. This stage of confusion caused by carbon monoxide exposure interferes with the victim’s ability to realize their life is in immediate danger.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can be reversed if caught in time, but may result in permanent brain and heart damage.
How Can You Be Exposed to Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon Monoxide Exposure In The Home
In your personal life at home, sources of carbon monoxide exposure can include:
- Water Heaters
- Gas Ovens
- Wood Burning Stoves
- Charcoal Grills
These appliances and utilities usually work fine, but improperly installed or maintained, they can release carbon monoxide with levels building up especially in winter when they are used more frequently, and windows and doors are tightly sealed and closed.
Carbon Monoxide Exposure in Garages and Enclosed Spaces
Leaving cars, trucks, or other engines running in enclosed spaces like garages is another common source of exposure. Even if the garage door is open, CO can build up and seep into a building. A motorboat or jet ski idling or operating at a slow speed with swimmers or someone being pulled can build up CO levels. Recreational vehicles can also be enclosed spaces where carbon monoxide can potentially build up and should have CO detectors just like in your home.
Carbon Monoxide Exposure in The Workplace
At work, the most common source of carbon monoxide is anything with a gasoline, diesel- or gas-powered engine like a generator, vehicle or truck. In winter, supplementary heaters can cause CO exposure. If your workplace has a furnace, water heater or oven you need to be aware of carbon monoxide. Tools powered by gasoline-like high-pressure washers, welders and pumps also produce carbon monoxide.
Workplaces with Elevated Risk of Carbon Monoxide Exposure
Workplaces with elevated risk of CO exposure include mechanical shop floors, boiler rooms, breweries, docks, warehouses, petroleum refineries, mines, pulp and paper production, steel production, and blast furnaces or coke ovens. If you work in an enclosed space, you have an elevated risk of carbon monoxide exposure. If you drive a vehicle for a living, you need to be aware of situations that elevate your risk of CO exposure.
Emergency situations where workers, or first responders have entered CO-rich environments without personal CO monitors and respirator equipment have subsequently become victims of serious injury and even death.
How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Exposure at Work
Here are best practices to prevent carbon monoxide exposure at work:
- Use local exhaust ventilation or extraction fans to remove CO from the work area.
- Maintain equipment and appliances.
- Switch from gas-powered equipment to equipment powered by electricity, batteries or compressed air.
- Avoid the use of gas-powered tools in confined spaces.
- Don’t idle vehicles in a garage or outside for long; especially if it may be near an air input system for a building.
- Install CO monitors with audible alarms. Use personal CO monitors with audible alarms if potential for CO exposure exists.
- Test air regularly with CO may be present, especially in confined spaces.
- Use a SCBA respirator if entry is required in an area with a high CO concentration or for emergency situations.
- If entering a confined space, check for oxygen sufficiency before entering.
You Have a Role in Carbon Monoxide Safety
As an employee, you should report any situation to your employer that might cause CO to accumulate. If you ever suspect you are experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure, leave the area immediately. Be alert for ventilation problems—especially in enclosed areas where gases of burning fuels may be released. Report any complaints of dizziness, drowsiness or nausea promptly.