CO is formed when organic materials such as wood, oil, or gasoline burn in an area with a limited supply of air or oxygen. The most common source of carbon monoxide is incomplete fuel burning—often from a motor vehicle or a furnace—in an airtight building. CO is most dangerous in winter, when closed doors and windows eliminate natural ventilation.
Articulate clearly that people can die in minutes if they inhale large amounts of carbon monoxide. Inhaling even small amounts can cause health problems. CO is so dangerous because it gets into the blood when it's inhaled and interferes with the blood's ability to send oxygen to the tissues including the heart and the brain.
- In the worst cases, CO exposure can cause permanent brain damage or even death.
- It's a double risk for pregnant women, because their blood can carry the CO to the baby.
- Liquid CO is also hazardous. If workers have skin contact, remove any contaminated clothing immediately and thoroughly rinse the skin.
Although many industrial processes can produce CO, the most common source is exhaust from a car, truck, or forklift. This creates risks for mechanics and drivers as well as people who work on or around loading docks or in forklift repair areas. Fortunately, there are CO detectors that can detect and measure its presence in the air and alert people when levels are dangerous. If your workplace has CO dangers, let employees know where the CO detectors are located.
Workers can protect themselves by identifying the equipment that could pose risks, such as a furnace or vehicle. Once identified:
- Get the furnace cleaned and inspected every year.
- Check vehicles for exhaust system leaks.
- Take extra care with vehicles used indoors, including forklifts.
—Vent gases out through an exhaust pipe when motor vehicles must run in enclosed spaces—good ventilation is vital.
—Turn vehicles off during loading or unloading or any time they're not moving.
—Never warm up a car or truck in an enclosed space.
- If ventilation can't solve the problem, workers may need to wear supplied-air respirators.
Installing CO detectors and taking precautions are effective ways to prevent problems, but workers still need to know the symptoms of CO poisoning. People sometimes forget to change the detector's batteries, or fail to take a precaution.
- Symptoms that could indicate the early stages of CO exposure include:
—Roaring in the ears,
—Rapid breathing and pulse, and
—Confusion, irritability, and impaired judgment.
- People with heart disease may also experience chest pains.
- Situations that increase the dangers include high temperatures, smoking, physical exertion, and high altitudes.
Finally, train workers how to react quickly to any signs of exposure. First of all, if they experience any symptoms of CO poisoning, get to fresh air immediately. In addition:
- If they notice a co-worker showing any symptoms, move him or her to fresh air and report the possible problem at once.
- It may be necessary to evacuate the area until the CO level is checked and any problem eliminated.
- A few minutes in fresh air will usually relieve the milder symptoms of CO exposure.
- A CO inhalation victim who isn't breathing must have artificial respiration and immediate medical attention. Call 911.
Why It Matters
- Approximately 400 Americans lose their lives each year to CO poisoning.
- Around 20,000 Americans are rushed to emergency rooms for treatment for CO poisoning.
- CO hazards are avoidable with simple precautions that include up-to-date maintenance on furnaces and vehicles, and installation and regular testing of CO detectors.