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). 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 woodbuilt 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.