According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, winter is an especially dangerous time for carbon monoxide poisoning. Why? Everyone battens down the hatches against the cold, and that can mean ventilation is limited.
Outside of work, people often encounter carbon monoxide when they warm up their cars in a garage. Even with the garage door open, this colorless, odorless gas can accumulate in dangerous levels.
The same is true when workers warm up work vehicles in enclosed or semi-enclosed areas or use gas-powered forklifts indoors. But vehicles aren’t the only sources of the deadly gas. Carbon monoxide can come from any combustion engine, such as a gas-powered heater, a portable generator, welding equipment or a power tool compressor.
OSHA recently issued a reminder that employers need to protect their employees from carbon monoxide exposure. Install an effective ventilation system, limit sources of carbon monoxide and adopt carbon monoxide detectors with audible alarms — either mounted in the exposure area or worn on the body.
Both employers and workers need to be aware of the symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure. The symptoms vary, but common ones include:
- Sudden headache
- Drowsiness or fatigue
- Tightness across the chest or, among those with angina, sudden chest pain
At greater exposure levels, a victim might experience confusion, vomiting, muscle weakness, collapse and loss of consciousness. In large concentrations, carbon monoxide can overcome a person in minutes, without warning.
Carbon monoxide injures people by displacing the oxygen they need, essentially suffocating them. This deprives the brain, heart and other vital organs of oxygen, sometimes causing permanent damage.
How to help when someone is suffering from carbon monoxide exposure
If you suspect carbon monoxide exposure, the first thing to do is immediately move the victim to fresh air. You, yourself, are in danger if you remain in the contaminated area.
Call 911 or your in-house emergency number.
If safely possible, turn off the source of carbon monoxide.
If oxygen is available, administer 100 percent oxygen through a tight-fitting mask. If not, wait for paramedics to arrive and tell them you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning.
If the victim has stopped breathing AND YOU ARE TRAINED in carbon monoxide recovery, administer CPR. WARNING: An untrained person could be exposed to fatal levels of carbon monoxide during CPR.
Report to your own doctor that you have been exposed to carbon monoxide.
Employers should take active steps to limit exposure to carbon monoxide, especially in winter. Workers should report any suspicion of carbon monoxide to their employers right away, along with any work-related illness or injury you experience.