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What is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a toxic, colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that can kill you. That is why it is sometimes called “the silent killer”. CO has no identifiable odor but is often mixed with other odorous gases. Therefore, carbon monoxide can be breathed or inhaled with a gas that has a sense of smell without knowing that CO is present in the mixture. CO is a common industrial hazard due to incomplete combustion of carbonaceous materials such as natural gas, gasoline, kerosene, petroleum, propane, coal, and wood. Forgings, blast furnaces, welding and most hot works produce CO. One of the most common sources of exposure in the workplace is internal combustion engines. Carbon monoxide is harmful when inhaled because it replaces oxygen in the blood and deprives the heart, brain, and other important organs of oxygen. Large amounts of CO can overwhelm you in minutes without warning, it can cause you to lose consciousness and choke.
Approximately 50,000 people are admitted to the emergency room each year in the United States due to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. While approximately 430 people die each year from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in the United States. The risk is huge and it needs to be properly addressed.
Figure 1 – Carbon Monoxide
Risks of Working in Carbon Monoxide Filled Environments
The main danger of carbon monoxide is that it is not easy to detect. The gas is composed of only two elements, carbon, and oxygen, and easily mixes with air. Poisoning occurs only by inhaling toxic compounds from the air. Large amounts of carbon monoxide can be very flammable and explosive when mixed with air, but situations that lead to such high concentrations are rare. Carbon monoxide enters the bloodstream through the lungs and binds to hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a red pigment in the blood that carries oxygen. Carbon monoxide follows the same path as oxygen, but toxic gases bind to hemoglobin 210 times faster than oxygen. This means that carbon monoxide enters the bloodstream first, even if the surrounding atmosphere is rich in oxygen. High blood levels of the compound prevent a sufficient amount of oxygen from reaching the heart and brain which can cause choking, capillary bleeding, permanent damage to nerve tissue and brain cells, and in severe cases, death. The early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are difficult to distinguish from other possible causes. Low exposure can cause headaches, dizziness, light headedness, or nausea. Further exposure exacerbates preliminary symptoms and may be accompanied by rapid heart rate, confusion, loss of coordination, or collapse. Ultimately, high exposure can lead to convulsions, coma, or death. Highly exposed victims who are recovering may still experience permanent damage to the brain or nervous tissue. The long-term effects of low levels of exposure are uncertain. However, sudden exposure to high levels can be fatal in just a few minutes. During World War II in Italy, over 500 people were killed almost instantly when overloaded trains were trapped in steep ice tunnels and toxic gas from burning coal suffocated them. Low levels of carbon monoxide exposure are not clearly associated with birth defects, but pregnant workers can be particularly at risk. However, cases of extreme poisoning caused still birth or nervous system disorders in newborns. Workers with health conditions such as heart disease, anemia, or dyspnea that affect the flow of oxygen in the bloodstream may be at an elevated risk level of carbon monoxide exposure than workers without such conditions. Since carbon monoxide is a by-product of smoking, gas can affect smokers faster than nonsmokers. Exposure to carbon monoxide can also contribute to pneumonia by allowing saliva and foreign bodies to enter the airways.
Figure 2 – Symptoms of CO Poisoning
Carbon Monoxide Exposure Limits
The permissible exposure limit (PEL) varies based on the standard followed for the reference industry. The current Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) permissible exposure limit (PEL) for carbon monoxide is 50 parts per million (ppm) parts of air as an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) concentration.
While the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has established a recommended exposure limit (REL) for carbon monoxide of 35 ppm as an 8-hour TWA and 200 ppm as a ceiling [NIOSH 1992].
The NIOSH limit is based on the risk of cardiovascular effects
Safety Measures to Avoid Working in Carbon Monoxide Environments
The best way to control exposure to carbon monoxide is to completely remove carbon monoxide from the environment. One way to do this is to replace the machines or equipment that emits carbon monoxide with a non-gas-producing device such as a battery-powered engine or a non-sparking tool. Ventilation systems are another effective way to remove carbon monoxide from the environment. Individual operations can be enclosed and connected to the local exhaust system. You can use the portable extractor to remove gas from a closed or underground work area. Also, if the equipment is kept in good working order potential danger is minimized. As a last resort, workers may be provided with personal respiratory protection devices and gas detection equipment (portable and fixed) to adequately react when gases are present in the work area. Permit to work systems are an effective measure which helps define standard processes to be followed such as gas tests prior to entering confined spaces which may be filled with poisonous gases. In addition, employers need to educate their at-risk workers about the potential dangers associated with carbon monoxide exposure and the proper management of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Carbon Monoxide (CO) or any toxic gas can be quite tricky to handle. Gases which are odorless and deadly represent a very high risk to workers and employers globally. It is imperative that employers assess the individual tasks for risks such as emitting poisonous gases, and issue safety programs which help reduce both likelihood and severity of worker injury risk significantly. The permit to work process is an effective system that has been used in many industries and has helped workers identify the presence of poisonous gases using portable or fixed gas detector to complete a gas test prior to working in an area or while working in an area. In addition, specific personal protective equipment (PPE) such as breathing apparatus (BA) have been made available to workers to enable working in such toxic gases filled environment. At TFT-Pneumatic we always prefer the use of our Non-Sparking Tools due to its reduced risk level eliminating emitting any CO gases which can be deadly in minutes.
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