Preventing Caron Monoxide Poisoning in Businesses

Carbon monoxide (CO), a colorless, tasteless and odorless poisonous gas, is a byproduct of the incomplete burning of carbon-containing material. This gas can quickly accumulate in areas where employees work, even if the space appears well-ventilated. Exposure to CO can cause serious health problems and even death.

Considering these hazards, it is essential that businesses take steps to ensure their workplace is safe from CO exposure. This article explores the common causes of CO poisoning in businesses, describes the signs of CO poisoning and the employees at higher risk, and provides practical steps to minimize this risk.

Common Causes of CO Poisoning in Businesses

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that CO is produced mainly when the combustion of carbon-containing materials (e.g., gasoline, natural gas, kerosene, oil, propane, charcoal or wood) during the fuel-burning process is incomplete. This leads to more CO being emitted instead of carbon dioxide. Common CO sources are:

  • Faulty appliances, such as furnaces, water heaters or gas stoves that improperly burn fuel and release CO into the workplace
  • Internal combustion engines, such as those used by many cars, trucks, forklifts and other machines
  • Equipment and power tools like portable generators, lawn equipment and power washers that run on gasoline

When CO is present in a workplace, certain signs may be noticeable, including:

  • Streaks of soot around appliances or fallen soot inside of a fireplace
  • Excess moisture or condensation on surfaces
  • Excess rust on pipes or appliance jacks
  • Yellow or orange flames (instead of blue) in combustion appliances
  • Water leaking from vents or flue pipes
  • Damaged or discolored bricks on top of the chimney or an absence of an upward draft

Employees at High Risk of CO Poisoning

Many businesses have equipment, appliances and machines that have the potential to produce CO, but employees in specific industries and roles may be at a higher risk due to the nature of their jobs. Here are examples of who may be at an elevated risk of CO poisoning:

  • Cooks and bakers
  • Blast furnace and boiler room workers
  • Diesel engine operators
  • Garage mechanics
  • Welders
  • Pulp and paper producers
  • Dock and longshore workers
  • Forklift and diesel engine operators
  • Steel producers
  • Organic chemical synthesizers
  • Metal oxide reducers
  • Petroleum refiners

Signs of CO Poisoning

When inhaled, CO displaces oxygen in the blood, which can lead to oxygen starvation in vital organs. Recognizing these varying signs of CO poisoning is essential to help prevent serious injury or death:

  • Early symptoms: Early CO poisoning symptoms often mimic the flu and include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea and chest pain. These can be mistaken for other illnesses.
  • Severe symptoms: Prolonged or high levels of CO exposure lead to confusion, vomiting, muscle weakness, collapse and loss of consciousness. Neurological symptoms, metabolic acidosis and cardiac issues may also occur.

It is important to note that symptoms can vary by person, and some populations are more susceptible to CO poisoning, including the elderly; young children; those with preexisting heart or long-term conditions; those who work at high altitudes; and those with anemia, sickle cell anemia and elevated CO blood levels (e.g., smokers). CO poisoning also poses unique risks to pregnant workers and their unborn children.

CO poisoning can be reversed if it is caught in time, according to OSHA However, acute poisoning may cause permanent damage to body parts that require high oxygen levels, such as the brain and heart. Additionally, OSHA notes that significant reproductive risk is linked to CO exposure.

Steps to Minimize CO Risks

With the severity of CO hazards, businesses need to take steps to eliminate or reduce the potential for CO-related injuries or fatalities. Measures to take include:

  • Ensure proper installation of equipment, appliances or other machines that may produce CO. This can be accomplished by following applicable manufacturer instructions and local building codes.
  • Conduct regular inspections. Heating systems, chimneys, flues and other equipment that could produce CO should be inspected annually by professionals. Air in spaces where CO may be present should also be regularly tested for the presence of the gas.
  • Educate employees. Staff should be trained on CO risks, symptoms and emergency procedures. They must also be encouraged to report any suspicious odors or symptoms, avoid overexertion if they suspect CO poisoning and leave contaminated areas.
  • Check for proper ventilation. It’s vital to ensure adequate ventilation exists in enclosed spaces where fuel-burning equipment operates and avoid running equipment that could produce CO near open doors or windows or near air intakes.
  • Utilize CO detectors. CO detectors should be installed in areas near potential CO sources (e.g., boiler rooms, garages, kitchens) and routinely tested. Batteries should be replaced regularly. If an employee is at a heightened risk of CO exposure, they should be provided with a personal CO monitor.
  • Prohibit indoor use of gas-powered equipment. The use of gasoline-powered tools or equipment (e.g., generators, concrete cutting saws, high-pressure washers, floor buffers) should be prohibited indoors or in poorly ventilated areas.
  • Provide personal protective equipment (PPE). Ensuring employees who work in areas with potentially high CO concentrations have access to proper PPE (e.g., self-contained breathing apparatus) and know how to use it is essential.
  • Emergency response plan. Employers must develop and communicate an emergency plan for CO incidents. Such a plan should include procedures for evacuation and providing medical assistance.
  • Change power sources. Businesses should consider alternative power supplies (e.g., batteries, electricity or compressed air) instead of gasoline-powered equipment.


Employers have a duty to ensure safe working conditions for their employees. Being aware of the risks of CO and taking proactive steps to eliminate or mitigate those hazards can help accomplish this goal.

For additional risk management resources, contact us today.

This Risk Insights is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as legal advice. Readers should contact legal counsel or an insurance professional for appropriate advice. © 2024 Zywave, Inc. All rights reserved.

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