Gas-Fueled Tools Can Poison Users

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CPWR - The Center for Construction Research and Training

Summary Statement

Describes carbon monoxide hazards from small gasoline powered engines and discusses steps that should be taken by to improve safety.
May, 1995

Last year, two laborers cleaning an empty underground parking garage in Washington, D.C., collapsed and had to be treated in a hospital emergency room for carbon monoxide poisoning. Two other workers and a foreman were also treated. They had been using a gas-fueled power washer.

Workers can suffer carbon monoxide poisoning if they use gas-fueled equipment where there isn’t enough fresh air. Even open doors and fans may not provide enough ventilation. In four years, doctors at the George Washington University Medical Center (GWU) in Washington, D.C., have seen nine construction workers poisoned by carbon monoxide from using three types of equipment: propane-powered forklifts in a warehouse and gasoline-powered saws and the gas-fueled power washer. Workers using liquid-propane-powered floor burnishers were treated at a hospital in Vermont for the same problem.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, and colorless gas. It quickly enters the lungs and attaches to the blood, which moves it quickly throughout the body. The level of poisoning is affected by the concentration of carbon monoxide in the air, the length of the exposure, the exercise involved in the work being done (which affects the breathing rate), and personal factors. In some cases, a victim may not show dizziness or other symptoms. Unconsciousness or death can result in minutes if the exposure is high.

For workers who survive, carbon monoxide can permanently damage the nervous system.

The risk of carbon monoxide poisoning can be cut by using electric or diesel equipment, good ventilation, monitoring, and training. But you need to make sure the solution doesn’t add new problems. Electrical equipment should have a ground-fault circuit interrupter to lower the chance of electrocution. Diesel-fueled equipment needs to be properly fitted with filters for diesel particulates in the air that can probable cause cancer. Diesel- and gas-fueled equipment should also be fitted with a catalytic converter and well-maintained, to give off less carbon monoxide.

Even with these steps, the amount of carbon monoxide may still be too high to use the equipment in some areas. Air monitoring is needed to make sure workers are not exposed to unsafe levels of the gas. This monitoring requires special equipment and people trained to use it.

Contractors and all workers must also be told about the dangers of using gas-fueled equipment in enclosed spaces. Warning labels can be used . Training can show how to use the equipment safely.

These cases were identified by Dr. Laura Welch and her colleagues at GWU. They have been studying work-related health problems of construction workers treated in the emergency room as part of a special program with the BCTD’s CPWR – Center for Construction Research and Training. Funding is provided by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.