CO Dangers, Dr. D. Penney


What is it?

Carbon monoxide -- a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas -- is one of the most common industrial hazards. Mild poisoning can cause such symptoms as nausea, dizziness or headaches while severe poisoning can result in brain or heart damage or even death. This poisonous gas is produced by the incomplete burning of any material containing carbon, such as gasoline, natural gas, oil, propane, coal or wood. Forges, blast furnaces and coke ovens all produce CO, but one of the most common sources of exposure in the workplace is the internal combustion engine.

Be suspicious of CO poisoning if you develop headache, flushed face, dizziness or weakness. Bear in mind that although CO has no telltale odor, it may mix with gases which do have an odor. Thus, the smell of other gases doesn't mean an absence of CO.

Are You Likely to be Poisoned?

If you have a heart condition, your condition may be aggravated by CO. Ingestion of barbiturates and alcohol may increase the gas' health effects. Further, smokers will have higher carboxyhemoglobin than non-smokers, and therefore face higher risk from carbon monoxide exposures on the job.

Harmful levels of CO are a potential danger to: acetylene workers, blast furnace workers, boiler room workers, brewery workers, carbon black makers, coke oven workers, customs workers, diesel engine operators, dock workers, garage mechanics, metal oxide reducers, miners, organic chemical synthesizers, petroleum refinery workers, pulp and paper workers, steel workers, toll booth and tunnel attendants, and warehouse workers.

How Does CO Harm You?

Large amounts of carbon monoxide can kill in minutes. The more CO in the air and the longer you are exposed to it, the greater the danger. Any one or more of the following symptoms can signal CO 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.

The 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 which require a lot of oxygen, such as the heart and brain.

There is a significant reproductive risk involved with CO. An American Journal of Industrial Medicine article quotes two studies showing that acute CO exposures that were non-lethal to the mother were associated with fetal loss.

What Can You Do About CO?

If you suspect CO, get out of the area and into the open fresh air. Remove anyone overcome by the gas immediately and give the person artificial respiration. Call for a physician and continue the artificial respiration until the doctor arrives or the person recovers. Prompt action can make the difference between life and death.

How Can Poisoning be Prevented?

Suggestions for Employers:
  • Install an effective ventilation system to remove poisonous CO from the area.

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

  • Consider switching from fossil fuel-powered equipment to battery-powered machinery when possible.

  • Provide approved respirators for emergency use. Regular respirators (negative pressure) will not work in this atmosphere. If necessary, provide an independent air supply to workers.

  • Install CO alarms or regularly test air in areas when CO is generated or used.

  • Provide preplacement and periodic medical examinations for workers who may be exposed to CO. If possible, transfer affected workers to other jobs.

  • Instruct workers in the hazards of carbon monoxide and train them in the proper use of respirators.

  • Suggestions for Workers:

  • Report to your employer any condition which might make CO form or accumulate.

  • Be alert to ventilation problems, especially in enclosed areas where gases of burning fuels may be released.

  • Report complaints early. 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.

  • 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 which reduces the oxygen-carrying ability of the blood, even before any industrial exposure is added.

  • What are the Federal Standards?

    Note: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard for exposure to CO prohibits workers' exposure to more than 35 parts of the gas per million parts of air (ppm), averaged over an 8-hour workday. There is also a ceiling limit of 200 ppm (as measured over a 15-minute period).

    Based on: Fact Sheet No. OSHA 92-11, U.S. Department of Labor.

    ...... last changed 02/12/00

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