Exploring the danger of carbon monoxide exposure at work and what to do about it
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 400 people die from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning in the U.S. every year, and an additional 4,000 people are hospitalized. The risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is higher in some workplaces than others. In a workplace without carbon monoxide detectors, levels of this odorless and colorless gas can increase to toxic levels.
Carbon monoxide causes more deaths than any other toxic substance in the workplace. Even if exposure to carbon monoxide at work doesn’t lead to death, it can result in debilitating long-term effects. Fortunately, if you are hospitalized in Georgia because of carbon monoxide exposure, you will likely be covered by workers’ compensation.
What is carbon monoxide poisoning?
Carbon monoxide is a by-product of the incomplete burning of substances such as kerosene, oil, propane, wood, gasoline and natural gas. If released in a poorly ventilated room, workers can inhale carbon monoxide and get poisoned. Once inhaled, the gas affects the transportation of oxygen in the body, which causes headaches, dizziness, fainting and even death.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that workers are not exposed to more than 50 parts per million of carbon monoxide during an 8-hour workday. If you are exposed to more than 100 parts per million, you are looking at poisonous levels of exposure.
Who’s at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning at work?
Employees working near internal combustion engines, forges, coke ovens and blast ovens are at increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. If you work in the paper, pulp or steel industry or in a boiler room, warehouse, brewery or petroleum refinery, you are at high risk of carbon monoxide exposure.
Construction workers are also at higher risk, thanks to the many possible gas sources on the job site. Gas lines can leak or rupture, and gas equipment can release dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.
Workers most at risk of CO poisoning include:
- Forklift operators
- Diesel engine drivers
- Metal oxide reducers
- Organic carbon synthesizers
- Carbon black makers
- Tollbooth and tunnels attendants
- Police officers
- Taxi drivers
- Construction workers
- Customs officials
If you have a gas furnace at your workplace or equipment and devices that run on gas, you are at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning at work.
Common signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning
Carbon monoxide can cause short-term or long-term problems. Low-level CO exposure symptoms can be confused for fatigue, flu, food poisoning and many other minor illnesses. If you experience any of these symptoms at work, you may be suffering from low-level CO poisoning:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of muscle control
- Sudden chest pains
- Loss of consciousness
High levels of carbon monoxide exposure can lead to:
- Behavioral changes
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of muscle coordination
- Chest pains
- Convulsions and loss of consciousness
- Impaired mental state
- Tachycardia (rapid heart rate)
If you experience any of these symptoms, you should seek immediate medical attention. Notify your employer, and hire a workers’ compensation attorney so you can get compensation for the days you miss work.
Most CO poisoning symptoms are temporary and will disappear a few hours after exposure ceases. However, continued exposure to carbon monoxide at work can cause long-term effects, including:
- Permanent brain damage leading to memory problems and loss of concentration
- Heart disease leading to coronary heart disease, heart attack and chronic angina (chest pain)
- Birth defects in unborn babies leading to possible behavioral issues, low birth weight and stillbirth
What to do if you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning at work
As an employee, you should report any possible causes of carbon monoxide accumulation in the workplace. This will help your employer assess the situation and fix it before it causes any harm. If you feel dizzy, drowsy, or nauseous, report this to your employer so they can do the necessary investigation.
Workers in enclosed spaces without enough ventilation should be especially aware of the risk of CO poisoning. If you suspect carbon monoxide accumulation in an enclosed space, leave the area immediately to avoid exposure. You should also avoid working in or around gas-powered equipment if the equipment is in an enclosed space.
If exposure to carbon monoxide is severe, victims may suffer from hypoxia, which is a prolonged lack of oxygen to the brain. Hypoxia can lead to irreversible brain damage.
If you suspect that you or a colleague is experiencing CO poisoning at work, take the following steps:
- Move the person outdoors so they have access to fresh air
- Call 911
- If the person is struggling to breathe, administer an oxygen mask
- If the person is not breathing, administer CPR until help arrives
When to consult a Georgia workers’ compensation attorney
If you are exposed to harmful levels of carbon monoxide in the workplace, you are most likely entitled to workers’ compensation. You could end up hospitalized, missing work or suffering long-term effects from the poisoning. If you end up in the hospital and are unsure what to do next, our experienced attorneys can help.