#69 Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous, colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas. Although it has no detectable odor, CO is often mixed with other gases that do have an odor. So, you can inhale carbon monoxide right along with gases that you can smell and not even know that CO is present. 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 you in minutes without warning—causing you to lose consciousness and suffocate. Besides tightness across the chest, initial symptoms of CO poisoning may include headache, fatigue, dizziness, drowsiness, or nausea. Sudden chest pain may occur in people with angina. During prolonged or high exposures, symptoms may worsen and include vomiting, confusion, and collapse in addition to loss of consciousness and muscle weakness.

Symptoms vary widely from person to person. CO poisoning may occur sooner in those most susceptible: young children, elderly people, people with lung or heart disease, people at high altitudes, or those who already have elevated CO blood levels, such as smokers.

Also, CO poisoning poses a special risk to fetuses. CO poisoning can be reversed if caught in time. But even if you recover, acute poisoning may result in permanent damage to the parts of your body that require a lot of oxygen such as the heart and brain. Significant reproductive risk is also linked to CO.

What can you do if you suspect someone has been poisoned?

When you suspect CO poisoning, promptly taking the following actions can save lives:

■ Move the victim immediately to fresh air in an open area.

■ Call 911 or another local emergency number for medical attention or assistance.

■ Administer 100-percent oxygen using a tight-fitting mask if the victim is breathing.

■ Administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation if the victim has stopped breathing. Warning: You may be exposed to fatal levels of CO poisoning in a rescue attempt. Rescuers should be skilled at performing recovery operations and using recovery equipment. Employers should make sure that rescuers are not exposed to dangerous CO levels when performing rescue operations.

How can employers help prevent CO poisoning? To reduce the chances of CO poisoning in your workplace, you should take the following actions:

■ Install an effective ventilation system that will remove CO from work areas.

■ Maintain equipment and appliances (e.g., water heaters, space heaters, cooking ranges) that can produce CO in good working order to promote their safe operation and to reduce CO formation.

■ Consider switching from gasoline-powered equipment to equipment powered by electricity, batteries, or compressed air if it can be used safely.

■ Prohibit the use of gasoline-powered engines or tools in poorly ventilated areas.