Carbon Monoxide: The Silent Killer


Unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning contributes to over 400 deaths each year in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Its odorless and colorless characteristics make a leak difficult to detect, allowing it go unnoticed and affect any people or animals exposed to it.

What is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a gas that is found in fumes commonly produced by burning gas, wood, propane, and fuel. Increased exposure to this gas can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, a life threatening condition caused by a buildup of carbon monoxide in the bloodstream.

Running engines or burning fuel in poorly ventilated or enclosed spaces increases the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, as the gas may build up to dangerous levels and contaminate the air. Breathing in air with high concentrations of carbon monoxide causes the body to replace the oxygen in red blood cells with carbon monoxide, leading to carbon monoxide poisoning.

What are the Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

It is difficult to tell if someone has carbon monoxide poisoning due to the typical nature of its symptoms. The most common symptoms seen in carbon monoxide poisoning cases are:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath

These symptoms may be common, but can also indicate a serious problem. If not treated immediately, carbon monoxide poisoning has the potential to cause brain and heart damage, miscarriage, and even death. If you      believe you or someone you know has been exposed to carbon monoxide and show any of these symptoms, seek help from a medical professional.

Who is at Risk?

Carbon monoxide poisoning can affect anyone who comes in contact with high levels of carbon monoxide. However, infants, the elderly, and those with pre-existing or chronic heart disease, anemia, or respiratory conditions are at a higher risk of being affected.

In a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control, results showed that men are also two times more likely than woman to be affected by carbon monoxide poisoning due to high-risk behaviors such as working with fuel-burning tools or appliances.

Another group of people at high risk for carbon monoxide poisoning are factory, manufacturing, and plant workers. These employees are exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide and if not handled properly, can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, “every year, workers die from carbon monoxide poisoning, usually while using fuel-burning equipment and tools in buildings or semi-enclosed spaces without adequate ventilation” (OSHA).

It is the employer’s job to ensure that all employees are safe from exposures and are provided with the necessary Personal Protective Equipment to work in such conditions. To learn what you can do as an employer, skip down to Prevention in the Workplace.


While carbon monoxide may be difficult to detect, carbon monoxide poisoning is easily preventable. Here are some simple tips recommended by the Center for Disease Control to help keep you and your family safe from carbon monoxide:

  • Servicing Appliances: If you use a heating system and any fuel burning appliance, it is necessary to have it serviced each year. This allows any problems to be detected in advance and can save you from potential dangers later one.
  • Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Installing a battery operated CO detector in your home will ensure any carbon monoxide leaks are detected before they can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. Make sure to check the battery and replace as needed. The CDC recommends checking each time the clocks change in the fall and spring.
  • Evacuate: While the above methods are useful in preventing carbon monoxide poisoning, in the case of a carbon monoxide leak, evacuate immediately and call 911.

The CDC also recommends avoiding:

  • Keeping a vehicle running inside a garage attached to your house. This is especially common in winter months as many individuals like to warm their car before getting inside; however, the buildup of fumes can seep into the house contaminating the air with carbon monoxide.
  • Burning items in an unvented fireplace or stove.
  • Using a gas or propane fueled oven to warm a space.

Prevention in the Workplace

OSHA recommends that employer’s follow these tips to help prevent carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Installing ventilation systems that effectively filter carbon monoxide from work spaces.
  • Switch from gasoline fueled equipment to equipment that can run on electricity or batteries.
  • Test air regularly to check carbon monoxide levels.
  • Educate employees on the dangers and ensure they know if the equipment they use emits carbon monoxide.

It is also important to ensure that your workplace’s carbon monoxide emissions do not exceed the permissible exposure limit set by OSHA.

  • 35 ppm Time Weighted Average PEL for carbon monoxide
  • 200 ppm Ceiling PEL for carbon monoxide (this is the maximum allowance)
  • 1,500 ppm for any instantaneous carbon monoxide exposures

Check your facilities to ensure any carbon monoxide emissions fall within these standards. This will keep your employees safe and improve company safety culture.

For more information and tips of preventing carbon monoxide poisoning, visit the CDC’s Carbon Monoxide Poisoning informational site.

For more workplace information and tips of preventing carbon monoxide poisoning, visit OSHA’s Fact Sheet: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning.


Tags: safety topics , carbon monoxide safety , carbon monoxide poisoning ,

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