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Carbon Monoxide: An Invisible Workplace Hazard

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Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless gas produced by burning fuel in such things as cars or trucks, small engines, stoves, grills, fireplaces, and portable generators. When this gas builds up in enclosed spaces, those in the area can be poisoned as the gas displaces oxygen in the blood, depriving the heart, brain, and other vital organs. Large amounts of this gas can overcome a worker within minutes without warning.

The main source of workplace exposure to CO is when an internal combustion engine is operated indoors or in confined area, increasing those toxic levels, especially if they are not properly maintained. Other culprits could include kilns, boilers, fires or furnaces.
Initial warning signs of CO poisoning include headache, fatigue, dizziness, drowsiness and nausea. Those symptoms will continue to worsen during prolonged or high exposures, and then can include vomiting, confusion and collapse.

As an employer, it is your responsibility to keep your workplace as safe as possible. When it comes to carbon monoxide poisoning, the best bet to managing exposure is to eliminate the source. One method is to substitute non-gas producing equipment, such as battery-powered engines, for those vehicles and machinery that emit CO. If that is not possible, here are some risk control measures to consider:
1. Stop using diesel or gas equipment indoors
2. Modify the work areas to reduce exposure and improve ventilation
3. Test air regularly in areas where CO may be present
4. Maintain equipment that produces CO
5. Develop a written exposure control plan to help employees understand the risks – awareness can be prevention in many cases
6. Install carbon monoxide monitors with audible alarms
7. Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) if the CO exposure cannot be minimized

If a worker is experiencing CO poisoning, it’s imperative to act fast! Get the victim to fresh open air and call 911. Every year, thousands of American workers are killed outright from carbon monoxide poisoning, making this poisonous gas one of the most dangerous industrial hazards. Take steps today to mitigate the chances of your workforce’s exposure to this invisible killer.

Mr. Griffith has a received his bachelors degree in Environmental Health from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He is a Certified Industrial Hygienist and president of Workplace Safety & Health Company. He has over 35 years of industrial hygiene, safety, loss control and consulting experience. Chemical monitoring, noise measurement, program development and management, risk assessment and computer management of health and safety data are areas of particular strength. Mr. Griffith is a member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) at the local and national level. He is also active in the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE).

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