Carbon monoxide (CO) – a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas – is one of the most common industrial hazards. Small quantities can cause illness and large quantities can kill. The more CO in the air, and the longer a worker is exposed to it, the greater the danger. Any one or more of the following symptoms can signal carbon monoxide poisoning: headaches, tightness across the chest, nausea, drowsiness, inattention, or fatigue. As the amount of CO in the air increases, more serious symptoms develop, such as lack of coordination, weakness, and confusion.

CO is a common industrial hazard resulting from the incomplete burning of natural gas and any other material containing carbon, such as gasoline, kerosene, oil, propane, coal, or wood. Forges, blast furnaces, and coke ovens produce CO, but one of the most common sources of exposure in the workplace is the internal combustion engine.

Carbon monoxide is harmful when breathed because it displaces oxygen in the blood and deprives the heart, brain, and other vital organs of oxygen. Large amounts of CO can overcome a worker in minutes without warning, causing loss of consciousness and, eventually, suffocation.

Workers who suspect exposure to CO should get out of the area and into the open, fresh air. If it can be done safely, help remove anyone overcome by the gas and provide artificial respiration. Call for a doctor and continue the artificial respiration until the doctor arrives or the person recovers. Prompt action can make the difference between life and death.

Suggestions for Employers

Instruct workers in the hazards of CO and train them in the proper use of respirators.

Use a full-face-piece pressure-demand self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), or a combination full-face-piece pressure-demand supplied-air respirator with auxiliary self-contained air supply in areas with high CO concentrations (i.e., atmospheres that are immediately dangerous to life and health).

Install a ventilation system to remove CO from the area and install CO monitors with audible alarms.

Maintain appliances and equipment in good order, adjusting flames, burners, and drafts to reduce the formation of CO.

Consider switching from fossil fuel-powered to battery-powered equipment.

Provide periodic medical examinations for workers who may be exposed to CO.

Suggestions for Workers

Be alert to ventilation problems, especially in enclosed areas where exhaust from burning fuels may be released. Report to your employer any condition that might create CO.

Don’t overexert yourself if you suspect CO poisoning. Physical activity increases the body’s need for oxygen and thus increases the danger of poisoning. Report promptly complaints of dizziness, drowsiness, or nausea.

If you get sick, don’t forget to tell your doctor about the possibility of exposure to CO.

Think carefully about your smoking habits. Tobacco, when burned, releases CO that reduces the oxygen-carrying ability of the blood, even before any industrial exposure is added.

Avoid the use of gas-powered engines, such as those in powered washers, as well as heaters and forklifts, while working in enclosed spaces.

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