Asphyxiation in The Workplace

What is Asphyxiation?

There are many gases widely used commercially that contain an asphyxiation hazard. An asphyxiation hazard is a gas or vapour that can cause unconsciousness or death through suffocation. There are two categories of asphyxiation hazards: simple asphyxiants and chemical asphyxiants. Both interfere with the supply of oxygen in the air and have the same health consequences and impact. 


Why is Asphyxiation Harmful?

A sufficient level of oxygen in the air we breathe is essential. Asphyxiants displace oxygen in the air. Breathing an oxygen deficient atmosphere can have serious and immediate effects, including unconsciousness after only one or two breaths. The exposed person has no warning and cannot sense that the oxygen level is too low.  

If less oxygen is available to breathe, symptoms such as rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, clumsiness, confusion and fatigue can result. As less oxygen becomes available, nausea and vomiting, collapse, convulsions, coma and death can occur. Symptoms occur more quickly with physical exertion. Lack of oxygen can also cause permanent damage to organs including the brain and heart. 

In addition to the suffocation hazard, some asphyxiant gases are also flammable. Some are compressed gases and can be combustible, easily catch fire, and burn or explode. Some gases are cryogenic and can cause serious burns.  The SDS and the label on the container explains all the hazards for the materials you work with.


How Do Asphyxiants Harm My Body?

Simple Asphyxiant Hazards

A simple asphyxiant is a gas with no other health effects and it is not a “poison” in the traditional sense. The gases present a hazard when it displaces oxygen in greater concentrations and makes the atmosphere hazardous to humans. It is often odorless and not toxic. Examples of these gases with an asphyxiant hazards include hydrogen, methane, and nitrogen.  

Chemical Asphyxiant Hazards

A chemical asphyxiant is more serious hazardous as it interferes with the transportation or absorption of oxygen in the body. Often a colourless and odourless gas. It is considered very toxic and can be fatal if inhaled. Often a single exposure at a high concentration can cause long-lasting effects like asthma. Examples of chemical asphyxiants are Carbon Monoxide or Hydrogen Sulfide. 

H2: Who Needs To Be Concerned About Asphyxiants? 

If you work with the following gases or work in a confined space, you need to be aware of the risk of asphyxiation: Argon, Acetylene, Carbon dioxide, Ethane, Hydrogen, Helium, Liquified Petroleum Gas, Methane, Natural Gas, Neon Nitrogen, Propane, Cardon Monoxide and Hydrogen Sulphide. Review the SDS for the products you work with to see if you have any asphyxiation hazards.  

If you work around a fuel burning generator or vehicle it produces carbon monoxide. Monitoring systems are important to detect unsafe levels of these gases. In a majority of workplace fatalities involving an asphyxiant, the victim was working in or next to a confined space. One characteristic of a confined space is the capability to contain an atmosphere that may be completely different from outside air. Confined spaces in manufacturing can include, reactors, vessels, tanks, and boilers. Other spaces such as railcars, trenches, and areas accessible by manholes.   

Hydrogen sulphide is a by-product of sewage treatment plants, petroleum industry (oil and gas wells, refineries, pipelines), mines and tunnels in some mineral rock, and pulp and paper industry as a by-product of wood breaking down into pulp.