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Carbon Monoxide – The Silent Killer In The Workplace

Carbon monoxide (CO) is one of the better-known and highly toxic hazards in the workplace. Any contact with it can be deadly. Exposure to carbon monoxide prevents oxygen from getting into the body, quickly leading to loss of consciousness, suffocation or death. Large amounts of carbon monoxide can be lethal within minutes without warning.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning At WorkWhat makes carbon monoxide even more dangerous is the fact that you can’t see, smell, or taste it. It’s not surprising that it is known as the ‘silent killer’ in the workplace.

How Carbon Monoxide Is Generated

Carbon monoxide is most commonly produced from incomplete combustion of carbon-containing materials such as natural gas, wood, coal, petrol, diesel, propane, and kerosene oil.

Incomplete combustion usually occurs when there isn’t enough oxygen to keep the fuel burning process going. When this happens, CO is emitted into the atmosphere. Under normal circumstances, in the case of complete combustion, carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere.

Carbon monoxide can be generated by vehicle exhausts, portable petrol and diesel-powered generators and engines, propane-powered heaters, fuel-burning furnaces, forklifts, and similar equipment.

Who Is At High Risk Of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning In The Workplace?

Workers who operate the equipment above in small, enclosed areas with little or no ventilation are at high risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in the workplace. This includes workplaces such as manufacturing units, garages, boiler rooms, petroleum refineries, and warehouses.

Diesel engine operators, garage mechanics, welders, forklift operators, firefighters, marine terminal operators, dock workers, and heavy machinery operators are at high risk of being exposed to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide during the course of their work. Also at high risk are workers employed in steel production and the pulp and paper industries and those who work around blast furnaces.

Warning Signs Of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

The invisible, odourless and tasteless nature of carbon monoxide makes it an insidious threat. More often than not, the warning signs manifest only after significant exposure to the gas. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning vary considerably from one person to another.

Initial symptoms that indicate mild exposure to carbon monoxide may include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Drowsiness

Symptoms worsen during high or prolonged exposure and may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Collapse

If a worker is experiencing any of the above symptoms, it’s crucial to act fast to minimise the toxic effects of the gas. The first thing to do is to get the worker out of the enclosed area and out in an open area. The fresh, carbon-monoxide-free air outside will prevent the symptoms from getting worse.

Call an ambulance immediately so they can be taken to the hospital to receive emergency care at the earliest. The chances of a full recovery are higher if the affected person receives timely treatment.

Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning At Work

Exposure to carbon monoxide can be lethal, with many people not even realising they’re being poisoned as the hazard remains undetectable until the symptoms have advanced considerably. With that in mind, it’s more important than ever to put stringent measures in place to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning at work. This is even more important in workplaces that use gas-powered equipment.

Below are some of the safety guidelines recommended to help prevent carbon dioxide poisoning in the workplace:

  • Awareness of the sources is important for both, employers and employees
  • All workplaces must be surveyed regularly to identify potential sources of exposure to carbon monoxide
  • Appropriate ventilation systems must be installed to filter all toxic gases including carbon monoxide from the work area
  • If necessary, mechanical ventilation can be used to keep the carbon monoxide levels within the workplace exposure limits
  • All CO-producing equipment and internal combustion equipment must be regularly inspected to ensure that they are in good working order
  • In poorly-ventilated areas, the air should be tested regularly to check CO levels
  • Workers should be educated about the hazards of carbon monoxide exposure and how to recognise the symptoms
  • Where the potential for carbon monoxide exposure is high, workers should be equipped with personal CO monitors with audible alarms so workers can receive a timely warning that the levels are approaching dangerous levels
  • Where possible, petrol and diesel-powered machines should be replaced with battery or electricity-powered equipment

Preventive Measures Are Especially Important During Winter Months

The risk of carbon monoxide poisoning at work increases considerably during the winter months. This is due to several different reasons. The first is because the doors and windows are usually closed to keep out the cold. The small amounts of carbon monoxide that are generated cannot escape outside and remain trapped inside the space. As the CO keeps accumulating, the levels start rising to increasingly more toxic levels, resulting in CO poisoning. Using petrol and diesel generators to keep the place warm increases the risk.

Who Is Responsible For Keeping The Workplace Free From Carbon Monoxide?

Employers have a legal duty of care towards all their workers. As part of this duty of care, they must put in place adequate measures to ensure that their workers and visitors are free from any risks on the premises. However, while employers are ultimately responsible for keeping the workplace free from carbon monoxide poisoning, workers must also be equally vigilant so that they and their colleagues remain safe from all hazards in the workplace.

If you’ve suffered carbon monoxide poisoning at work and believe your employer’s negligence is the cause, please refer to our guide here to see if you’re eligible to claim compensation.

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