The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has just issued a reminder to employers that they need to protect their workers from the potentially deadly effects of exposure to carbon monoxide. Winter is a prime season for carbon monoxide poisoning, as buildings are closed up tight against the cold. And, indeed, there have recently been incidents in which people have been poisoned by carbon monoxide from portable generators and other combustion engines being used in enclosed spaces.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas that can be toxic. Symptoms of overexposure vary between victims, but can include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness or drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Tightness across the chest
  • Sudden chest pain in people with angina
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Muscle weakness

OSHA warns that carbon monoxide, in sufficient amounts, can overcome a person in mere minutes, causing a loss of consciousness and eventual suffocation. Severe overexposure can result in coma, neurological damage and even death.

If you begin to feel symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure, avoid overexertion and promptly leave the contaminated area.

If you suspect someone has been exposed to carbon monoxide, immediately move them to an open area with fresh air and call 911 or the applicable safety phone number. If oxygen is available on site and the victim is breathing, administer 100-percent oxygen using a tight-fitting mask.

If the victim has stopped breathing, perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation ONLY if you are trained on doing so for carbon monoxide victims. If you are not specifically trained, you could expose yourself to potentially fatal levels of carbon monoxide by performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

According to Occupational Health & Safety magazine, carbon monoxide is responsible for the deaths of some workers each year, often in winter when fuel-burning tools and other equipment are used in spaces that lack sufficient ventilation. Examples of equipment that could produce carbon monoxide include:

  • Portable generators
  • Space heaters
  • Gas-powered tools and compressors
  • Pumps
  • Welding equipment
  • Boilers and furnaces
  • Gas-powered forklifts
  • Cars and trucks

Employers can reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning by ensuring there is sufficient ventilation, by maintaining equipment properly, by eliminating the use of gasoline-powered equipment indoors or in partially enclosed places, and by installing carbon monoxide detectors wherever a hazard might exist, or by providing wearable carbon monoxide monitors with audible alarms. The use of gas-powered appliances should be prohibited in enclosed areas without proper ventilation.

Workers can help by reporting any conditions to management that could lead to the accumulation of carbon monoxide. Promptly report any dizziness, drowsiness or nausea and tell your employer and your doctor right away if you have been exposed to carbon monoxide.