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Forklift Safety – Counting the Costs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Why is the hazard of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning hardly mentioned in forklift circles? Probably because, when serious exposures happen, it is not just the forklift operator who is affected. In one case, dating back to 2004, 45 people in a Washington cherry packing plant were sealed inside a large warehouse for four or five hours according to a pest fumigation protocol. All of the workers became ill and lost consciousness.

Following analysis of the blood CO levels of the sick employees, ambient levels of CO in the plant were estimated to be between 226 and 532 parts per million (ppm). The maximum limit according to the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act of 1973 (WISHA), is 220 ppm. The accident cost the company approximately $32,000 in workers compensation and a WISHA penalty of $14,000.

The accident occurred because four of the seven forklifts in use, all from a rental firm, were found to be emitting between 5% and 6% CO. The remaining three lifts, all owned and maintained by the packing company, were found to be well maintained and emitting only 1% CO. How did these harmful emission levels go undetected? There were no CO alarms in place and there was no ventilation.

In a similar accident that took place in 1997, 89 employees, one-third of the company’s total workforce, were exposed to excessive levels of the colorless, odorless gas. Here, the workers comp and penalty costs amounted to a total of $114,000.

These are just the financial costs. Additional, indirect costs of a CO incident include:

  • Costs of mounting the investigation
  • Absenteeism
  • Employee turnover (well, wouldn’t you bail of a third of your colleagues got gassed at work?)
  • Retraining
  • Litigation
  • Reduced attention to product quality
  • Complete trashing of employee morale
  • Delays getting product to market
  • Bad public relations

Preventing mass exposures of carbon monoxide is not rocket science and is certainly cheaper than putting up a chunk of your workforce in a hospital. The next article explains what employers can do to prevent CO poisoning.

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