Dangers of Carbon Monoxide – How You Can Stay Safe

Carbon monoxide, is a colourless, odourless, toxic gas which is formed when fuel does not burn properly. The cause is often as the result of faulty appliances such as gas fires, boilers and central heating systems.

Known as the ‘silent killer; it was responsible for 53 accidental deaths in England in Wales in 2015 according to the Office for National Statistics.

Although carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is a danger mainly associate with the home, in the last few years there have been a number of serious incidents highlighting the risk carbon monoxide can pose within a working environment.

Recently a Hull-based construction firm was fined after workers were poisoned with CO. They were using a petrol-driven saw within a makeshift sealed enclosure. More seriously, a lone working security guard in London died from carbon monoxide poisoning after lighting barbecue coals in a wheelbarrow. He placed the barrow inside the site office he was working in to keep himself warm. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive showed that the failure of his employer to check on the employee’s welfare, as he was left alone to ‘fend for himself’ was a serious contributing factor in his death.

These cases show the importance of identifying the risk of carbon monoxide and ensuring in circumstances where it may be encountered, appropriate measures are put in place so that workers are properly monitored and fully aware of the dangers.

So, when it comes to CO, it is important to know the range of sources, including emissions that could affect your workforce.

Sources of Carbon Monoxide

  • Incompletely burned carbon-based material (e.g. wood, paper, fuel)
  • Internal combustion engines (cars, trucks, forklifts, small portable petrol engines, etc)
  • Kilns
  • Furnaces and fuel-powered boilers
  • Welding
  • Plastics moulding
  • Space heaters, oil or gas heaters
  • Fires and explosions

You can keep your workers safe by ensuring you minimise the risks:

Eliminate the risks:

  • Use electric forklifts instead of fuel-powered forklifts
  • Move carbon monoxide-generating processes outside
  • Use electrical, hydraulic or pneumatic tools instead of fuel-powered tools

Minimise the risks:

  • Install ventilation in work areas that captures the contaminated air and extracts it safely outside
  • Regularly tune fuel-powered forklifts to ensure that carbon monoxide emissions are as low as possible
  • Install detectors

Sign and Symptoms

Carbon monoxide can be deadly but initial symptoms are mild, starting off as just a headache and sleepiness.  Symptoms, including fatigue, headache, nausea and shortness of breath can be mistaken for early flu. In severe cases, a person can become confused or faint due to the effects. With continued exposure, death is possible. It might be that the symptoms disappear or get better when you leave the workplace but come back when you return.

Be aware. The colder months are especially dangerous since heaters, generators and other portable heating devices may be used.