The Silent Killer: How Carbon Monoxide is Formed

working welding with welders mask

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: The Silent Killer

What’s odourless, colourless, tasteless and can kill you almost instantly? Carbon monoxide (CO).

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a reality for everyone, not just those who work in industrial trades.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can happen over time or in an instant, depending on the level of Carbon Monoxide in the air. Certain spaces are more prone to carbon monoxide poisoning than others, for example, confined spaces are more likely to pose a risk for CO poisoning. 

Carbon monoxide is made when you burn: 

  • Oil
  • Coal
  • Gas
  • Wood
  • Propane
  • Natural gas 

Like we touch on above, it’s particularly deadly when burnt in an enclosed space with little air-circulation or flow.   

In this blog, we’ll cover what exactly is carbon monoxide, how & if it can be treated, how you can prevent CO poisoning, what the symptoms are and steps employers & employees should take to minimize the risk of dangerous exposure.  

WHAT IS CARBON MONOXIDE?

Like we mention above, carbon monoxide is an odourless, tasteless & colourless flammable gas. Carbon monoxide is in many other substances, like the air we breathe—The amount of CO in the air is approximately 0.2 parts per million (ppm) which isn’t harmful to humans.

In increased levels (usually around 150ppm or higher), carbon monoxide becomes deadly.   

OK, SO WHAT IS CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING?

Carbon monoxide poisoning happens when CO is inhaled and builds up in the bloodstream.  

The body displaces the oxygen in your red blood cells with carbon monoxide. Your bloodstream can’t send  oxygen to vital organs like your brain, heart & nervous tissue so they can work. This leads to unconsciousness, and if it worsens, death. 

It’s important to note that carbon monoxide is poisonous to animals, too. 

CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING: WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?

Symptoms of CO poisoning can appear quickly, or slowly over time depending on the amount in the air, the size of the individual & their muscular activity and the amount of time they’re exposed to the CO.

Many signs of CO poisoning resemble the flu. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea/Vomiting 
  • Trouble breathing 
  • Dizziness 
  • Confusion 
  • Chest pain 
  • Stomach pain 

If someone is sleeping or intoxicated, they likely won’t display symptoms, but will still succumb to CO poisoning. Everyone exposed to CO poisoning will be effected, no matter individual health, size or gender—Although the time that symptoms and sickness appear may differ. 

Even cases of carbon dioxide poisoning that aren’t considered that serious can lead to long-lasting health effects. Some of these include:

  • Brain damage
  • Heart damage
  • Organ damage
CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING: WHAT SORT OF WORK PRODUCES CARBON MONOXIDE? 

You probably know now that carbon monoxide poisoning can impact anyone—Whether you’re at work, home or school, all sorts of environments can produce CO.

One of the largest producers of carbon monoxide in the world are natural disasters/sources, like forest fires, but workers still need to be prepared for work that produces carbon monoxide, especially when it takes place in areas where air flow is restricted. Carbon monoxide burns well when it’s mixed with air, and this can be explosive in high-enough amounts. 

When it comes to carbon monoxide at work, there are a few different types of work that have the potential to produce harmful levels of carbon monoxide if not managed properly. 

Some jobs, or factors around jobs that can produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide include: 

  • Welding 
  • Work vehicles 
  • Portable generators 
  • Engines, (ex. Internal Combustion Engines) 
  • Gasoline-powered tools 
  • Fire/Explosions
  • Natural gas heaters 
  • Kilns, furnaces or boilers 
  • Cigarette smoke 
CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING: PREVENTION

There are many steps you can take to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning at work. 

What does carbon monoxide do to the body over time? Take a look at the chart below: 

 
Employers can:
  • Install a ventilation system that removes carbon monoxide from work areas. 
  • Maintain water & space heaters, cooking ranges/gas stoves 
  • Use alternatives to gas-powered equipment 
  • Install and use a carbon monoxide detector—Choose a detector that will sound the alarm before carbon monoxide reaches dangerous levels. 
  • Don’t use gas-powered tools in areas with poor ventilation 
  • Regularly test the quality of air where carbon monoxide-producing work is performed 
  • Ensure employees are trained and are wearing appropriate PPE for the work and conditions 
CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING: TREATMENT

If you suspect someone of experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning, call 911 immediately. Remove them from the carbon monoxide-affected area only if you’re wearing the appropriate PPE to protect yourself—Remember, nearly 60% of confined space deaths happen to worker’s trying to rescue others. 

First, a blood sample is taken to determine if you have carbon monoxide poisoning. 

In terms of treatment, there are different courses of action to take. DO NOT consider this a guide of what to do, but rather some potential things to expect from treatment from the hospital depending on your carbon monoxide levels. 

For treatment, they might: 

  • Have the poisoned person breath fresh air or pure oxygen 
  • Place the person in a high-pressure chamber that forces oxygen into the body  
KNOW YOUR PPE: RESPIRATORS 

Working in areas where you’ll be exposed to harmful gases, chemicals or air? A respirator might be just the PPE you need. 

Get to know the respirator, here: 

cartoon ppe respirator

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want more tips to deal with Carbon Monoxide? Open the Hercules SLR Toolbox and find quizzes, infographics & video to make your next safety meeting one they’ll actually care about. 


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