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Canary in the Coal Mine: Professions Prone to Carbon Monoxide Exposure

by | Jul 30, 2019 | Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

In the early 1900s, miners carried canary birds into the mines with them as poison testers. At the time, no available instruments could detect carbon monoxide (CO) – a lethal, tasteless, odorless, invisible, flammable gas. However, if the canary stopped singing or perished from CO exposure, miners knew to evacuate. Canaries have since become ingrained in mining culture, even though more sophisticated technology has replaced them as CO detectors. Unfortunately, the same threat of CO in the workplace remains.

Carbon monoxide is a naturally occurring gas that also comes from burning carbonaceous fuels such as wood, charcoal, oil, and propane. Inhaling too much causes CO poisoning, a serious medical emergency that can lead to debilitation or death. Certain professions and places – usually due to their proximity to burning fuels – are more likely to put people around high concentrations of CO or sublethal concentrations for extended time.

Some professionals at higher risk for CO poisoning include:

  • Airport crews
  • Boat and dock crews
  • Blast furnace operators
  • Commercial drivers
  • Crane operators
  • Coal miners
  • Coke oven operators
  • Construction workers
  • Firefighters
  • Forge operators
  • Industrial workers who recycle CO to use as fuel
  • Kiln operators
  • Mechanics
  • Metal oxide reducers
  • Oil, gas, and refinery workers
  • Operators of gas-powered engines (chainsaws, forklifts, bobcats)
  • People in laboratories using chemical CO or synthesizing organic compounds
  • People who work with methylene chloride (found in industrial paint strippers and solvents, metabolized by the body into CO)
  • Police officers
  • Pilots of piston-powered aircraft
  • Pulp and paper manufacturers
  • Taxi drivers
  • Toll booth and parking garage attendants
  • Warehouse workers
  • Welders

Ultimately, these professions are more likely to expose people to CO, thus increasing the risks of both acute and chronic CO poisoning.

Carbon monoxide causes the most workplace poisoning emergencies each year. Accidental exposure from combustion byproducts, especially in enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces, triggers a cascade of worsening, ambiguous symptoms that can lead to serious health problems later. Carbon monoxide’s undetectable profile and assassin-like potency threaten workers, making it a major concern to safety authorities.

CO exposure in a profession is most often linked to CO saturation in the work environment, but you have a right to a safe workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a permissible exposure limit (PEL) for CO. Learn the risk of CO exposure in your profession, and ensure that your employer adheres to appropriate air quality standards. You can confidentially report a safety concern to OSHA. However, OSHA cannot get you the compensation you deserve after a severe CO poisoning in your workplace.

If you or a loved one has been affected by CO poisoning, you may be entitled to compensation. The carbon monoxide lawyers at the Wyatt Law Firm have the experience and expertise to litigate these complicated cases. The legal community knows us by our results, and our clients know us by our steadfastness.

You have a story to tell, and we can make you heard. Let us fight for you.

Read more about carbon monoxide poisoning on our blog, or explore the extent of our practice on our website.


American Industrial Hygiene Association. (2019). AIHA Protecting Worker Health. Retrieved July 29, 2019, from https://www.aiha.org/

Communications Workers of America. (2017, December 22). Carbon Monoxide and the Workplace. Retrieved July 29, 2019, from https://cwa-union.org/national-issues/health-and-safety/health-and-safety-fact-sheets/carbon-monoxide-and-workplace

Cunha, J. P. (2018, October 22). 19 Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment (M. C. Stoppler, Ed.). Retrieved July 29, 2019, from https://www.emedicinehealth.com/carbon_monoxide_poisoning/article_em.htm#carbon_monoxide_poisoning_causes

Flachsbart, P. G. (2008). Exposure to Ambient and Microenvironmental Concentrations of Carbon Monoxide. In D. G. Penney (Ed.), Carbon Monoxide Poisoning (pp. 5-41). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

OSHA. (2012, April). Carbon Monoxide Poisoning [PDF]. OSHA Fact Sheet. Retrieved July 2, 2019, from https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_General_Facts/carbonmonoxide-factsheet.pdf