At least 430 people die and 50,000 seek emergency treatment from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in the United States each year. When inhaled, carbon monoxide displaces oxygen in the blood, depriving vital organs of the oxygen they need to keep the body alive. In high concentrations, carbon monoxide can overwhelm a person within minutes, causing them to lose consciousness, suffocate, and die.
For industrial workers, carbon monoxide poisoning is a significant risk that must be addressed through gas detectors, safety training, and other preventative methods. In this article, we will take an in-depth look at how workplace carbon monoxide exposure can occur, the effects it has on the body, and what can be done to prevent workers from experiencing serious injuries or losing their lives.
What Is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous, odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas. It is also flammable and burns with a violet flame. Carbon monoxide is classified as an inorganic compound and is formed by the incomplete combustion of carbon, which occurs when there is not enough oxygen in the air as carbon burns. Carbon monoxide is also formed when natural gas, diesel, and hydrocarbon fuels burn.
Carbon monoxide is more likely to build up in poorly ventilated areas and from unvented, aging, or defective combustion devices like heaters and furnaces. Exhaust from vehicles like large trucks, cars, and buses is also a source of carbon monoxide pollution.
Carbon Monoxide Quick Facts
- The red blood cells in your body pick up carbon monoxide faster than they pick up oxygen.
- When you inhale carbon monoxide, it replaces the oxygen in your bloodstream.
- The oxygen deficiency caused by carbon monoxide exposure quickly affects vital organs.
- Even small amounts of carbon monoxide can cause oxygen deficiency in the blood.
- When a person is sleeping during carbon monoxide exposure, they may die without even waking.
- Because carbon monoxide is odorless, you may breathe it in without knowing it.
Workplaces Where Carbon Monoxide Can Be Found
Workers across the country may be exposed to carbon monoxide in various ways. It is most common in industrial settings, where burning coal, natural gas, wood, forges, blast furnaces, and internal combustion engines produce the odorless, colorless, tasteless – and deadly – gas.
According to OSHA, the following workers may be exposed to harmful levels of carbon monoxide:
- Oil refinery workers
- Offshore workers
- Chemical plant workers
- Warehouse employees
- Pulp and paper plant workers
- Steel production workers
- Maritime workers
- Longshore and harbor workers
- Diesel engine operators
- Forklift operators
- Tollbooth attendants
- Taxi drivers
- Police officers
- Boiler room workers
Because carbon monoxide poisoning is so serious, OSHA has strict guidelines in place to prevent occupational exposure. The permissible exposure limit (PEL) for carbon monoxide is 50 parts per million (ppm), and exposure to more than an average of 50 ppm in an 8-hour period is prohibited. For maritime workers, the same PEL of 50 ppm applies, but they must be removed from the environment if the carbon monoxide concentration raises above 100 ppm. A peak level of 200 ppm applies for maritime workers engaged in roll-on roll-off operations.
Effects of Carbon Monoxide Exposure at Work
At low levels, carbon monoxide exposure may cause an otherwise healthy worker to experience initial symptoms like headache, fatigue, nausea, and dizziness. Some people describe these as “flu-like” symptoms, and they will typically disappear when the worker is removed from the environment where carbon monoxide is present.
Prolonged or acute exposure to carbon monoxide will cause a worsening of initial symptoms as well as vomiting, confusion, hallucinations, collapse, loss of consciousness, convulsions, and loss of muscle strength. All of these symptoms are caused by the effects that carbon monoxide has on the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen to vital organs, and if this lasts for a long enough amount of time, the resulting damage may be irreversible.
Acute occupational carbon monoxide exposure can have permanent effects on the body’s neurological system and can even cause delayed and long-term damage to the brain and heart. Carbon monoxide poisoning is also extremely harmful to pregnant women and unborn fetuses. When exposure is severe enough, death will result.
Responding to Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
If you are working and believe that you or a co-worker are experiencing the effects of carbon monoxide exposure, the most important thing you can do is leave the area where the gas is present. Getting fresh air is the first step. After that, you should call 911.
In cases of severe carbon monoxide poisoning, use extreme caution. Would-be rescuers can also succumb to carbon monoxide exposure if they go into an affected area unprotected. If the victim can be safely moved to fresh air, call 911 and administer 100% oxygen using a mask if they are breathing. If they aren’t breathing, perform CPR.
The effects of minor carbon monoxide poisoning can be reversed if an exposed worker is removed to fresh air and given oxygen, but in cases of prolonged exposure or exposure to high concentrations of carbon monoxide, the effects of oxygen deficiency can be serious and permanent. If the worker continues to breathe carbon monoxide in high concentrations, they will lose consciousness and die.
Employers Need to Protect Workers from Carbon Monoxide Exposure
In workplaces where carbon monoxide is present, employers must take certain steps to prevent exposure. OSHA’s carbon monoxide standards address key issues like exposure limits, testing requirements, instrumentation, and test recording to protect workers.
OSHA’s specific recommendations regarding workplace carbon monoxide exposure include:
- Removing carbon monoxide from work areas using ventilation systems.
- Properly maintaining equipment like heaters or furnaces, which can produce carbon monoxide.
- Using equipment that does not burn gasoline to operate, when possible.
- Prohibiting the use of gas-powered equipment in confined spaces.
- Providing workers with personal carbon monoxide monitors in at-risk areas.
- Regularly testing carbon monoxide levels in areas where the gas may be present.
- Providing workers with the appropriate respirators and personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Training workers on spotting the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Training workers on what to do in an environment where carbon monoxide is present.
- Testing workers’ oxygen levels before they enter an area where carbon monoxide is present.
In responding to incidents involving carbon monoxide exposure, employers must make sure that any workers engaged in rescue efforts are fully trained and equipped to do so.
Protecting Workers’ Rights & Futures
Arnold & Itkin has been fighting for America’s hardest workers since 2004. We recognize the risks that industrial workers at refineries, plants, docks, and offshore platforms face every single day. When companies fail to mitigate these risks and their workers are injured or worse, we stand up for their interests. Our work injury lawyers know that employers will not admit responsibility and do the right thing. That’s why we push for results and recoveries that help injured workers and families rebuild and move on. No matter what.