Asphyxiation Hazards in The Workplace

Did you know that if you work with certain gases such as argon and carbon dioxide, you could be at risk for asphyxiation? Read on to learn more about asphyxiation health hazards in the workplace. 

What is Asphyxiation?

There are many gases widely used commercially that contain an asphyxiation hazard. An asphyxiation hazard is defined as 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 occupational 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.  

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. 

Signs and Symptoms of Asphyxiation

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. 


Elevate the level of occupational health standards for your company.


What are the Effects of Asphyxiation on the Body?

Simple Asphyxiant Hazards

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

Where Do Asphyxiation Hazards Exist in the Workplace?

Employees who work at the following types of job sites should be cautious about asphyxiation risks: 

  • Confined Spaces: these include enclosed areas like silos, mine tunnels, manholes, pipelines, storage tanks, truck bulk tanks, ship compartments and engine rooms, vats, cold storage units, underground vaults, rail cars, boilers, cellars, and sealed rooms. 
  • Low-Lying Regions: areas with low elevation such as uncovered excavations, wells, exposed water and degreaser containers, and underground storage spaces pose significant risks for asphyxiation.  
  • Elevated Areas: since gases lighter than air move to high areas, attics, roofs, and lofts pose hazards. 

Who Needs To Be Concerned About Asphyxiants? 

If you work with the following gases, you need to be aware of the risk of asphyxiation:

Review the SDS for the products you work with to see if you have any asphyxiation hazards.  

How to Deal with Asphyxiation Hazards in the Workplace

Employ Monitoring Systems

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. For example, confined spaces in manufacturing can include, reactors, vessels, tanks, and boilers. Other spaces such as railcars, trenches, and areas accessible by manholes.

Ensure Proper Job Site Ventilation

Establishing safe operating protocols entails conducting thorough air quality assessments and ensuring proper ventilation prior to workers entering confined spaces or other high-risk zones.  In cases where workspaces and chemical storage areas suffer from inadequate natural airflow, the implementation of mechanical ventilation systems such as blowers and fans become essential to uphold air quality standards. 

Read the SDS

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 the pulp and paper industry. Ensure you read the SDS for products you work with to mitigate these asphyxiation hazards.

Improve Worker Safety

One of the ways to ensure that your workforce is safe is to educate them about the hazards associated with asphyxiation, the correct usage of breathing apparatus, and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Chemscape’s chemical management software, CHAMP, can help employers stay on top of asphyxiant occupational hazards. To learn more, contact us.  


Keep your workers healthy, safe, and productive.