By Adam R. YoungDaniel R. BirnbaumJames L. Curtis, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: The continuing proliferation of accidents involving carbon monoxide have drawn the attention of OSHA and NIOSH, which have issued regulations and recent press releases on the issue.

Approximately 400 Americans die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning, which can overcome an employee in a matter of minutes. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), carbon monoxide (CO) poses a significant risk due to it being “a colorless, odorless, and toxic gas”.

NIOSH indicates that employers with the following equipment at their worksite are at risk of having CO hazards in the workplace: vehicle exhausts, fuel burning furnaces, coal burning power plants, small gasoline engines, portable gasoline-powered generators, power washers, fire places, charcoal grills, marine engines, forklifts, propane-powered heaters, gas water heaters, and kerosene heaters.

Further, NIOSH notes that the “[c]ommon symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure are headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion.”  Employers should be monitoring their workforce for employees who may exhibit these symptoms so that it can act promptly if a CO hazard is present.”

OSHA has issued a news release on CO noting that employers who are “using fuel-burning equipment and tools in buildings or semi-enclosed spaces without adequate ventilation” face risk of CO exposure or death. The risk increases “during the winter months when employees use this type of equipment in indoor spaces that have been sealed tightly to block out cold temperatures and wind.” As such, as the weather cools, employers must remain vigilant regarding CO hazards.

Many manufacturing processes and industrial functions will generate CO.  The current standard set by the OSHA limits exposure to 50 parts of carbon monoxide per million parts (PPM) of air averaged over eight hours.  According to OSHA, employers should consider the following precautions:

• Never use a generator indoors or in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces such as garages, crawl spaces, and basements. Opening windows and doors in an enclosed space may prevent CO buildup.

• Make sure the generator has 3-4 feet of clear space on all sides and above it to ensure adequate ventilation.

• Do not use a generator outdoors if placed near doors, windows or vents which could allow CO to enter and build up in occupied spaces.

• When using space heaters and stoves ensure that they are in good working order to reduce CO buildup, and never use in enclosed spaces or indoors.

• Consider using tools powered by electricity or compressed air, if available.

• If you experience symptoms of CO poisoning get to fresh air right away and seek immediate medical attention.

Employers can also consider installing more mechanical ventilation, carbon monoxide area monitors, and badges to ensure that employees are not exposed. 

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.