Health, Safety, Security and Environment

Safety Flash: Worker dies from carbon monoxide poisoning while using pressure washer

3 min read

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, nonirritating toxic gas that is produced by burning fuel, such as gasoline, wood, coal, propane, oil, or kerosene. It is found in engine exhaust. When fuel burning equipment, tools, and appliances are used in enclosed or semi-enclosed spaces, CO levels can quickly build to dangerous or fatal concentrations. Hazardous CO levels can build up even in spaces that appear to be well ventilated.
CO combines with hemoglobin to form carboxyhemoglobin which interferes with the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood, resulting in a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching body tissue.1 The common mild-to-moderate viral-like symptoms of CO exposure such as fatigue, headache, nausea, confusion, and dizziness may be easy to overlook. Severe health effects of CO exposure include disorientation, unconsciousness, long-term neurologic disabilities, coma, cardiorespiratory failure, and death.
CO is a leading cause of death due to poisoning in the United States.2 From 1999 through 2010, the National Center for Vital Statistics reported a total of 5,149 unintentional, non-fire related deaths from CO poisoning, an average of 430 deaths per year.3 A separate study found 374 occupational CO exposure fatalities during the period 1992 through 2008.4 A study of occupational carbon monoxide poisoning in Washington State found that for a 6-year period there were 221 different exposure incidents resulting in 345 individual worker injury claims comprising. The distribution of exposure incidents occurred in numerous industry sectors, with the highest numbers in construction 43 (20%), wholesale trade 32 (15%), and agriculture 27 (12%)

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What H append?

On the day of the incident, a boat maintenance crew supervisor was overseeing a crew using a pressure washer and disc grinder to remove old paint from a boat. Crew members were working on the boat in different areas that were covered with plastic tarps to prevent paint chips from entering the water. The victim moved the pressure washer onto a side deck passageway that was fully enclosed by plastic tarps. He used the pressure washer for about 20 minutes. A co-worker later found him unconscious. The medical examiner reported the cause of death as “carbon monoxide intoxication due to inhalation of engine exhaust.”

To prevent similar occurrences:

  • Ensure gasoline-powered pressure washers or other fuel-powered tools are not used in enclosed or partially enclosed areas.
  • Instruct employees on the hazards, sources, symptoms and control of carbon monoxide exposure from fuel-powered equipment.
  • Ensure personal carbon monoxide detectors equipped with audible alarms are used when employees are working with small gasoline-powered engines in locations where carbon monoxide may build up.
  • Coordinate work activities at jobsites with multiple employees to ensure safe work.
  • Ensure carbon monoxide safety warning labels are attached to pressure washers, and replace the labels when they no longer are legible.
  • Consider using alternatives to fuel-powered equipment and tools.
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