Car­bon monox­ide, the in­sid­i­ous killer

The in­ci­dent has, of course, brought to light the se­ri­ous health risk posed by breath­ing in too much car­bon monox­ide (CO).

The Orchardist - - Health & Safety -

CO is ab­sorbed into the blood­stream by haemoglobin, which usu­ally car­ries oxy­gen around the body, and even­tu­ally leads to a form of hy­poxia (oxy­gen de­pri­va­tion) known as car­bon monox­ide poi­son­ing.

Car­bon monox­ide poi­son­ing is rel­a­tively com­mon, and is the most com­mon type of fa­tal poi­son­ing in many coun­tries. While not as dan­ger­ous in New Zealand homes as in other coun­tries, due to wood-built houses and rel­a­tively new build­ings, CO can still pose a dan­ger in the work­place, es­pe­cially where ma­chin­ery is in­volved in­doors for long pe­ri­ods of time.


Headache is the most com­mon symp­tom of CO poi­son­ing, but they can in­clude dizzi­ness, fa­tigue and nau­sea, while long-term ex­po­sure can cause heart pal­pi­ta­tions, seizures or death.

The early symp­toms are of­ten mis­taken for a virus, like the flu, so peo­ple of­ten don’t seek med­i­cal aid. To make things worse, CO is a colour­less, taste­less, odour­less gas, so many peo­ple don’t even re­alise they’re be­ing poi­soned un­til it’s too late.

Which is why it’s so im­por­tant to know what it’s like.


The most com­mon sources of CO in NZ are ve­hi­cles, in­dus­trial ma­chin­ery, fur­naces, gen­er­a­tors and petrol­fu­elled tools. On the farm or or­chard, this means that trac­tors, chain­saws, quad bikes, in­door heaters, ba­si­cally any­thing that runs on fuel, are all po­ten­tial risks.

Ex­po­sure typ­i­cally oc­curs when equip­ment is used in build­ings or semi-en­closed spa­ces; this is why poi­son­ings oc­cur more of­ten in the win­ter, since the temp­ta­tion is to keep doors and win­dows closed.


Pre­vent­ing CO poi­son­ing should be high on ev­ery em­ployer’s health and safety check­list. The eas­i­est way is to sim­ply en­sure proper ven­ti­la­tion of work ar­eas, as well as reg­u­lar main­te­nance and vent­ing of heaters, chim­neys, ve­hi­cles and other ma­chin­ery.

Aside from this, CO de­tec­tors are cheap, ef­fec­tive ways of warn­ing you and your work­ers about po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous lev­els nearby. If a pos­si­bly harm­ful level of CO is de­tected… well, you know how alarms work. This gives peo­ple the chance to leave the area and ven­ti­late the build­ing, and any­one pos­si­bly al­ready feel­ing ef­fects to seek help.

The first thing to do in case of CO poi­son­ing is to re­move those af­fected from the source, and get them breath­ing oxy­gen. Ide­ally a mask or re­breather should be used, to max­imise the oxy­gen re­ceived. Make sure your staff are up-to-date on first aid and CPR, in case it is re­quired.

CO is a po­ten­tially deadly haz­ard but, with the right knowl­edge and equip­ment it doesn’t have to be.

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