Winter Safety Alert: Ventilation in Shops
With winter weather in full swing, preventing injuries from cold-stress has been at the top of everyone’s list. As important as this is to protect the health of workers, there is another threat that proves just as hazardous: carbon monoxide poisoning. Too often, providing adequate ventilation in shops during the winter remains a problem. In an effort to conserve heat and reduce drafts, shop doors may not be fully opened and any fans might be shut off. While it may be tempting do these things to conserve heat, poor ventilation exposes workers to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide—a common industrial hazard that is often dubbed “the silent killer.” What are the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning? Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas that can’t be seen, smelled or tasted. This chemical asphyxiant prevents adequate oxygen from reaching vital organs of the body. Exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide may cause suffocation and loss of consciousness without warning. The most severe cases of carbon monoxide poisoning may lead to coma, neurological damage, and even death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 50,000 people visit the emergency room each year because of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Associated symptoms of low-level carbon monoxide poisoning—including drowsiness, headache, fatigue, and nausea—are often mistaken for common winter illnesses, delaying diagnosis and treatment. For those with prolonged or high exposure to carbon monoxide, symptoms include confusion, vomiting, and muscle weakness. The Chemical Safety Institute of America notes that “many cases are not detected until permanent, subtle damage to the brain, heart, and other organs and tissues has occurred.” Who is at risk of carbon monoxide exposure? Without proper ventilation, anything that involves combustion can be a harmful source of carbon monoxide at work. Using internal combustion engines, gas generators, welding equipment, space heaters, and power tools in an enclosed or semi-enclosed space can lead to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide buildup. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workers in the following occupations are potentially exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide:
- Welders and garage mechanics
- Firefighters and police officers
- Carbon-black makers
- Organic chemical synthesizers and metal oxide reducers
- Longshore and marine terminal workers
- Diesel engine operators and forklift operators
- Tollbooth or tunnel attendants
- Customs inspectors and taxi drivers
- Install ventilation systems that will effectively remove carbon monoxide from the affected work areas.
- Keep equipment and tools in good working condition to minimize the formation of carbon monoxide.
- Do not allow workers to use gas-powered engines, tools, and equipment in areas with inadequate ventilation.
- If there is potential exposure to carbon monoxide, provide workers with monitoring devices that feature audible alarms.
- Conduct air tests in confined spaces and areas where carbon monoxide may be present.
- Install carbon monoxide monitors (with audible alarms) at work.
- Use regulatory-compliant breathing apparatuses and respirators.
- Educate and train workers to identify, minimize, and address exposure to carbon monoxide.