Employer, Worker Awareness of Carbon Monoxide Dangers Stressed

OSHA warns employers and employees of the dangers of carbon monoxide following an incident this month in which 13 employees of a meat wholesaler were overcome by fumes from a forklift truck.

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Following an incident this month in which 13 employees of a Chelsea, Mass., meat wholesaler were overcome by carbon monoxide from a borrowed forklift truck, OSHA has cited the wholesaler and the company which supplied the forklift for safety violations.

OSHA has proposed combined penalties against the wholesaler, James J. Derba Inc., and the company which supplied the forklift, Big T&D Trucking, also of Chelsea, totaling $22,600.

According to Brenda Gordon, OSHA area director for Suffolk County and Southeastern Massachusetts, the alleged violation encompass overexposure to carbon monoxide, lack of adequate engineering controls to reduce such exposure, the use of defective forklift trucks, lack of employee training, and failure to maintain required employee illness and injury logs.

On Jan. 3, Derba employees were using a propane-powered forklift truck borrowed from Big T&D Trucking to help hang 200-300 pound beef sections in a meat hanging cooler.

Carbon monoxide from the truck''s exhaust built up to dangerous levels in the enclosed space of the unventilated cooler.

As a result of this, the workers experienced symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning including headaches, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, shortness of breath and loss of consciousness. All of the employees required medical attention.

"This was a close call, a textbook example of the dangers of carbon monoxide exposure that clearly illustrates why employers need to take effective steps to safeguard workers," said Gordon. "In this case, the employees were acutely exposed to excess levels of carbon monoxide that were potentially lethal. This forklift truck should not have been allowed to operate in this cooler."

Gordon explained that carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless poisonous gas produced by the incomplete burning of any material containing carbon such as gasoline, natural gas, oil, propane, coal or wood.

One of the most common sources of exposure in the workplace is the internal combustion engine.

"Carbon monoxide is a chemical asphyxiant," said Gordon. "Exposure to it restricts the ability of the blood system to carry necessary oxygen to body tissues. Prolonged overexposure to carbon monoxide can result in death or permanent damage to those parts of the body which require a lot of oxygen, such as the heart and brain."

Among the means of reducing carbon monoxide hazards are providing adequate ventilation in the workplace and ensuring that fossil-fuel-powered equipment is in proper working order so as to minimize its carbon monoxide levels.

When appropriate ventilation is unavailable, effective controls -- for example, the use of an electric rather than a gas-powered vehicle -- should be implemented.

Cold weather can increase carbon monoxide hazards since traditional warm weather sources of workplace ventilation such as windows, doors, vents and bays, may be closed or sealed against low outside temperatures.

Gordon encouraged employers seeking more information about carbon monoxide or other workplace health and safety hazards to contact their area OSHA office.

An OSHA fact sheet on carbon monoxide poisoning is available through its area offices or on-line at www.osha.gov.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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