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Invisible Killer: Be Aware and Prepared When It Comes to Carbon Monoxide

Often called the invisible killer, carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, and toxic gas, which is produced by incomplete combustion of carbon-containing materials. Incomplete combustion occurs when insufficient oxygen is used in the fuel burning process. Consequently, more carbon monoxide, in preference to carbon dioxide, is emitted. Examples of this include: cooking equipment that burns fuel, vehicle exhausts, fuel burning furnaces, small gasoline engines, portable gasoline-powered generators, power washers, fire places, charcoal grills, marine engines, forklifts, propane-powered heaters, gas water heaters, and kerosene heaters.

Exposure to carbon monoxide impedes the blood's ability to carry oxygen to body tissues and vital organs. When carbon monoxide is inhaled, it combines with hemoglobin (an iron-protein component of red blood cells), producing carboxyhemoglobin (COHb), which greatly diminishes hemoglobin's oxygen-carrying capacity. Hemoglobin's binding affinity for carbon monoxide is 300 times greater than its affinity for oxygen.

As a result, small amounts of carbon monoxide can dramatically reduce hemoglobin's ability to transport oxygen. Common symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure are headache, nausea, rapid breathing, weakness, exhaustion, dizziness, and confusion. Hypoxia (severe oxygen deficiency) due to acute carbon monoxide poisoning may result in reversible neurological effects, or it may result in long-term (and possibly delayed) irreversible neurological (brain damage) or cardiological (heart damage) effects. Additionally, carbon monoxide exposure can be dangerous during pregnancy for both the mother and the developing fetus.

The dangers of CO exposure depend on a number of variables, including the victim's health and activity level. Infants, pregnant women, and people with physical conditions that limit their body's ability to use oxygen (i.e. emphysema, asthma, heart disease) can be more severely affected by lower concentrations of CO than healthy adults would be. A person can be poisoned by a small amount of CO over a longer period of time or by a large amount of CO over a shorter amount of time.

What can you do if you suspect someone has been poisoned? When you suspect CO poisoning, promptly taking the following actions can save lives: If possible, move the victim immediately to fresh air in an open area. Call 911 for medical attention or assistance. Administer 100-percent oxygen using a tight-fitting mask if the victim is breathing. Administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation if the victim has stopped breathing.

Warning: You may be exposed to fatal levels of CO poisoning in a rescue attempt. Rescuers should be skilled at performing recovery operations and using recovery equipment. Every effort should be made to ensure that rescuers are not exposed to dangerous CO levels when performing rescue operations.

How can employers help prevent CO poisoning? To reduce the chances of CO poisoning in your workplace, you should take the following actions:

  • Install an effective ventilation system that will remove CO from work areas
  • Maintain equipment and appliances that can produce CO in good working order
  • Consider switching from gasoline-powered equipment to equipment powered by electricity, batteries, or compressed air if it can be used safely
  • Prohibit the use of gasoline-powered engines or tools in poorly ventilated areas
  • Provide personal CO monitors with audible alarms if potential exposure to CO exists
  • Test air regularly in areas where CO may be present, including confined spaces
  • Install CO monitors with audible alarms
  • Use an appropriate certified respirator in areas with high CO concentrations
  • Educate workers about the sources of CO, CO poisoning, CO symptoms and CO control
  • If your employees are working in confined spaces where the presence of CO is suspected, you must ensure that workers test and monitor the space

Jessica Schroeder is a Risk Management Consultant for Community Insurance Corporation (CIC), working in a dedicated fashion with Wisconsin school districts to reduce risk, manage unique exposures, and provide onsite employee training.  CIC insures over 120 school districts in Wisconsin for liability, Workers’ Compensation, and property insurance.

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