Carbon Monoxide Safety

It’s cold outside! So batten down the hatches, but beware of carbon monoxide.

Contributor: Brenda Wiederkehr, Owner, Access Compliance, LLC

It’s wintertime, and particularly in the north, we close the windows and doors, creating a microenvironment to warm up and stay comfortable. Some people heat with electricity, which runs the risk of further drying the already dry winter air. However, most places stay warm by burning products. Most of the time, these items are hydrocarbons such as petroleum-derived products like coal, oil or gas, or in the form of renewable fuels such as wood.

Usually, if hydrocarbon fuels are burned with enough oxygen and at a high enough temperature, the combustion products are water and carbon dioxide. In fact, carbon dioxide is a by-product of our human internal processing of hydrocarbons in the breakdown of food. We also use oxygen and produce carbon dioxide and water, which we exhale. If carbon dioxide builds up in our body (for any variety of reasons), it has a narcotic effect, meaning that it can induce narcosis or sleep, and acts like an anesthetic gas. Fortunately, our brains have sensors that regulate our breathing rate and volume of breathing, to combat changes in carbon dioxide levels.

But if the combustion process is done inefficiently; if there is not enough oxygen or the temperature is too low, instead of carbon dioxide, the combustion produces carbon monoxide. We do produce small amounts of carbon monoxide in our bodies, and we are learning that this has a beneficial effect in modulating certain cellular functions. When this colorless, odorless gas moves in our bloodstream, it binds to the same chemical that transports oxygen from our lungs to our body’s cells, hemoglobin. A hemoglobin molecule has four receptors, which can hold four oxygen molecules. Carbon monoxide, which can also bind to these sites, competes with oxygen. When hemoglobin has carbon monoxide attached to it, it is called carboxyhemoglobin, or COHb. The average level of carboxyhemoglobin in our population is 0-3% of all hemoglobin molecules. Since cigarettes involve the smoking of leaves at a relatively low temperature, cigarette smokers may have elevated blood levels of carboxyhemoglobin. A pack-a-day smoker can have a 3-6% COHb level in the blood, two packs a day, 6 to 10%, and three packs a day, as much as 20%. Unfortunately, carbon monoxide holds on to those binding sites much tighter than oxygen and can prevent oxygen from being transported from our lungs to our body’s tissue cells. This results in our body being starved of oxygen which can lead to asphyxiation.

Levels of carboxyhemoglobin and their symptoms:

  • 10-20%: Headaches, usually over the brow or frontal location, and nausea can occur. In fact, unexplained headaches in several people can often be the first signs of a problem in a worksite.

  • >20%: Can cause impaired judgment, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, and muscular weakness.

  • >30%: Can cause shortness of breath with exertion, confusion, and, in patients with coronary heart disease, may cause chest pain (methylene chloride, a common industrial solvent, is metabolized in the body to carbon monoxide and can cause heart issues as well as the other symptoms listed).

  • Higher levels: Can trigger coma, seizures, loss of consciousness, and death.

In a work environment, anytime combustion is taking place, there is a risk for carbon monoxide production. One of the best engineering controls is dilution by supplying fresh air or venting air from combustion to the outside. As such, if you are working on a running motor vehicle in your garage, venting the exhaust to the outside makes sense. Improperly vented furnaces, fireplaces, and grills can all create a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. In fact, wherever there is combustion, there is a risk, and winter is a risk factor when we shut the windows and doors and turn up the heat.

Here are some carbon monoxide safety tips:

  1. Use carbon monoxide detectors.

  1. Watch for symptoms where any combustion is taking place.

  1. Call the fire department to check if carbon monoxide levels may be elevated.

  1. Use ventilation and other engineering controls if carbon monoxide production risk is present.

  1. Evacuate the space and seek fresh air if elevated levels are assumed.

  1. Seek medical assessment and care if symptoms arise.

About the Author – A message from Brenda Wiederkehr

I have been in the safety field for what seems like my entire life. Growing up in a small farming town in the Midwest, where injuries or death affected the whole community, I was aware at a young age of the dangers faced in the working world. 

After completing high school I served in the United States Army for four (4) years, United States Army Reserves for eight (8) years, and in 1992 moved into the Occupational Medicine and Health and Safety field. Throughout my formative years and career, I have witnessed how safety – no matter where you are, at home, school, or work, is one of the most important elements of insuring a healthy life, not just for yourself but all who come into contact with you. I believe safety impacts the individual, the family, and the community. By providing access to valuable information and sharing the knowledge and insight acquired through our own experiences and training, Access Compliance and its affiliates can be an effective tool in helping prevent accidents, injuries, and unsafe situations/environments.

My life and work experiences offer a customer more than 18 years of hands-on knowledge of occupational safety and health programs, including 16 years of managerial experience in leadership, communication, organization, analyzing, and problem-solving skills. As such, Access Compliance and its affiliates are able to identify various occupational health, medicine, and safety needs within a variety of industry settings. 

I enjoy the challenge of designing and presenting programs tailored to fit individual company needs and look forward to working with new and existing clients to advance a culture of safety in their respective organizations.

Click here to learn more about Brenda or Access Compliance, LLC.