Wednesday, February 16, 2005

CO is risky business

Indoor use of gasoline-powered engines is dangerous

For the Express

Operating gasoline-powered engines and tools indoors is risky business.

Operators often have no idea of the serious health hazards associated with such equipment, and it has nothing to do with sharp blades or electrical shock. It has to do with poison.

Gasoline-powered engines, even small ones, produce high concentrations of carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas that can cause illness, permanent neurological damage and death, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Because carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and non-irritating, equipment users may be overcome without warning. Often, little time exists between the onset of initial symptoms such as dizziness and being overcome by the fumes.

The use of equipment, such as high-pressure washers, concrete cutting saws (walk-behind and hand-held), power trowels, floor buffers, welders, pumps, compressors and generators in building or semi-enclosed spaces have often resulted in carbon monoxide poisonings. However, the specific circumstances that set up conditions to concentrate the poisonous gas at fatal levels varies with each job site. A user may not be familiar enough with previous slight exposures to realize when he is in trouble.

Carbon monoxide can quickly accumulate, even in areas that appear to be well ventilated. The build up to dangerous or fatal concentration can occur within minutes from gas-powered tools, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In a joint alert from four federal health agencies and the Colorado Department of Public Health, the following examples of such poisonings were provided:

· A farm owner died of carbon monoxide poisoning while using an 11-horsepower gasoline-powered pressure washer to clean his barn. He had worked about 30 minutes before being overcome by fumes.

· A municipal employee at an indoor water treatment plant lost consciousness while trying to exit a 59,000-cubic-foot room in which he had been working with an 8-horsepower gasoline-powered pump. A door adjacent to the work area was open while he worked. His hospital diagnosis was carbon monoxide poisoning.

· Five workers were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after using two 8-horsepower gasoline-powered pressure washers in a poorly ventilated underground-parking garage.

· A plumber used a gasoline-powered concrete saw in a basement with open doors and windows and a cooling fan. He experienced a severe headache and dizziness and began to act in a paranoid manner. His symptoms were related to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Although these examples show a range of work settings and exposures that occurred over different time periods with different ventilation situations, workers in areas with closed doors and windows were incapacitated within minutes. Unfortunately, these examples show that opening doors and windows and operating fans does not guarantee safety.

Prior use of gas-powered equipment in seemingly similar, ventilated situations may give the user a false sense of safety. Knowledge is the best prevention. Below are tips from the joint federal/state of Colorado alert:

· Learn to recognize the symptoms and signs of carbon monoxide overexposure: headache, nausea, weakness, dizziness, visual disturbances, changes in personality and loss of consciousness. Any of these symptoms can occur within minutes of usage.

· Do not allow the use of gasoline-powered engines or tools inside buildings or in partially enclosed areas unless the engines can be located outside, away from air intakes.

· Use electric-powered or compressed air equivalent tools whenever possible for work in enclosed spaces. In certain situations, electrical-powered tools may pose potential electrocution hazards and engines producing the compressed air need to be located outdoors, away from air intakes.

· Use personal carbon monoxide monitors where potential sources of the gas exist. These monitors should be equipped with audible alarms to warn workers when carbon monoxide concentrations are too high.

· If symptoms occur, immediately turn off the equipment and go outdoors or to a place with uncontaminated air. Do not attempt to drive; call 911.

· Watch co-workers for signs of carbon monoxide toxicity.

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