We all know that carbon monoxide (CO) is a lethal gas that is produced when fuels such as gasoline are burned. What we might fail to recognize is that people have been victims of carbon monoxide poisoning while using small gasoline-powered engines and tools because the equipment produced hazardous concentrations of the gas even in well-ventilated spaces. The reason this can occur is that carbon monoxide can accumulate quickly, even in areas that seem to have enough ventilation. The gas is tasteless, colorless, odorless, and nonirritating, and it can overcome the exposed person without their realizing it. By the time they understand what is happening, they are so weak and confused that they lose the ability to get themselves to safety.
Carbon monoxide can poison a person in two ways. The first is by tightly binding to hemoglobin in the blood, replacing the blood’s oxygen supply, and diminishing the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen to other parts of the body. The second way is by binding to tissues and cells of the human body and interfering with their normal function. That’s why persons with pre-existing health conditions, such as heart disease, are at increased risk.
Recognizing the early warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning can be difficult because the early symptoms of exposure, headache, dizziness, and nausea, can be mistaken for symptoms of other illnesses such as colds, flu, or food poisoning. Fortunately, not all instances of exposure to carbon monoxide are fatal. The severity of the symptoms is affected by three main factors:
- The concentration of carbon monoxide in the environment
- How long the exposure lasts
- The exposed person’s work-load and breathing rate
However, it is never a good idea to assume your work environment doesn’t pose a risk. The best approach is to implement safe practices to avoid exposure as much as possible. To that end, The National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed the following guidelines:
- Do not use or operate gasoline-powered engines or tools inside buildings or in partially enclosed areas unless gasoline engines can be located outside and away from air intakes. Use of gasoline-powered tools indoors where CO from the engine can accumulate can be fatal. An exception to this rule might be an emergency rescue situation in which other options are not available. Such an exception should only be made when equipment operators, assisting personnel, and the victim are provided with supplied-air respirators.
- Always place the pump and power unit of high-pressure washers outdoors and away from air intakes so that engine exhaust is not drawn indoors where the work is being done. Run only the high-pressure wash line inside.
- Consider the use of tools powered by electricity or compressed air if they are available and can be used safely. For example, electric-powered tools present an electrocution hazard and require specific precautions for safety.
- If compressed air is used, place the gasoline-powered compressor outdoors away from air intakes so that engine exhaust is not drawn indoors where the work is being done.
- Use personal CO monitors where potential sources of CO exist. These monitors should be equipped with audible alarms to warn workers when CO concentrations are too high.
Learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of CO overexposure: Headache, nausea, weakness, dizziness, visual disturbances, changes in personality, and loss of consciousness. Any of these signs and symptoms can occur within minutes after equipment is turned on. If you suspect someone is experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning, have them turn off all equipment immediately and go outdoors or to a place with uncontaminated air. If the symptoms persist, don’t take chances. Take them to a hospital emergency room for treatment.