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Following a January incident in which 13 employees of a Chelsea, MA, meat wholesaler were overcome by carbon monoxide from a borrowed forklift truck, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the wholesaler, James Derba. Also cited was the company which supplied the forklift, Big T&D Trucking, also of Chelsea, for serious and other than serious violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. OSHA proposed combined penalties against the two employers totaling $22,600.
According to Brenda Gordon, OSHA area director for Suffolk County and Southeastern Massachusetts, the alleged violations encompass the following:
On Jan. 3, 2001, Derba employees were using a propane-powered forklift truck borrowed from Big T&D Trucking to help hang 200-pound to 300-pound beef sections in a meat hanging cooler. Carbon monoxide from the truck’s exhaust pipe built up to dangerous levels in the enclosed space of the unventilated cooler. As a result, the workers experienced symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning including headaches, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, shortness of breath, and loss of consciousness. All required medical attention.
"This was a close call, a textbook example of the dangers of carbon monoxide exposure that clearly illustrates why employers need to take effective steps to safeguard workers," Gordon says. "In this case, the employees were acutely exposed to excess levels of carbon monoxide that were potentially lethal. This forklift truck should not have been allowed to operate in this cooler."
Gordon explains that carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless poisonous gas produced by the incomplete burning of any material containing carbon, such as gasoline, natural gas, oil, propane, coal, or wood. One of the most common sources of exposure in the workplace is the internal combustion engine.
"Carbon monoxide is a chemical asphyxiant," she says. "Exposure to it restricts the ability of the blood system to carry necessary oxygen to body tissues. Prolonged overexposure to carbon monoxide can result in death or permanent damage to those parts of the body which require a lot of oxygen, such as the heart and brain."
Among the means of reducing carbon monoxide hazards are providing adequate ventilation in the workplace and ensuring that fossil-fuel-powered equipment is in proper working order so as to minimize its carbon monoxide levels. Where appropriate ventilation in unavailable, effective controls — for example, the use of an electric rather than a gas-powered vehicle — should be implemented.
Cold weather can increase carbon monoxide hazards since traditional warm weather sources of workplace ventilation — windows, doors, vents, bays — may be closed or sealed against low outside temperatures.
An OSHA fact sheet on carbon monoxide poisoning is available through its area offices or on-line at www.osha.gov under the News Room link.