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Companies often find out the hard way that fuel-driven forklifts used in the fruit and vegetable industry can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. At one cherry fumigation and packing house in Washington State, for example, carbon monoxide poisoning sickened 89 workers, resulting in workers’ compensation costs and penalties of $114,000.

Carbon monoxide poisonings are common in the fruit and vegetable industry, but they don’t have to happen. There are risks that can be mitigated, symptoms to be aware of, business strategies to address the risk, and resources to help.

Risks

A review of workers’ compensation claims shows that your workers are at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning if your company:

• Uses fuel-driven forklifts in or near controlled atmosphere or cold storage rooms (high risk)

• Uses fuel-driven forklifts indoors

• Rents a forklift with no knowledge of its exhaust emissions. (Lifts should be tuned to emit no more than 0.5% of carbon monoxide.)

• Uses fuel-driven lifts during cherry-export packing

• Has forklifts or diesel trucks idling with workers nearby

• Has unusual conditions, such as:

—Days when building ventilation is not working properly;

—Rerouting of forklift traffic through populated work areas, or

—Produce spill cleanups or restacking of collapsed produce.

The direct costs of carbon monoxide poisonings to a company can be high because a poisoning incident can be severe or even fatal, typically involves large numbers of workers, and may result in mandatory production shutdowns until the air is cleared.

Workers’ compensation claims filed between 1999 and 2004 for carbon monoxide poisoning due to forklift exhaust show that medical costs alone ranged from approximately $25 to $53,500, with an average of $2,001 per claim.

Indirect costs associated with carbon monoxide poisonings include absenteeism, employee turnover, retraining, reduced attention to product quality, poor employee morale, investigations, risk of third-party litigation, public relations issues, and market delays. The number of workers affected and the severity of the poisoning affect the costs.

Symptoms of poisoning

Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that you cannot smell, see or taste. Early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are flu-like and nonspecific, such as headache, nausea, dizziness, visual disturbances, and rapid breathing.

If employees complain of these symptoms, consider that carbon monoxide may be the cause and take immediate action. Reports on workers’ compensation claims suggest that employees will try hard to work through these symptoms, thinking they will go away or dismissing them as the result of something bad they ate for lunch. In nearly all claims filed, help was not summoned until someone passed out.

This is one reason why supervisors and employees should be well trained on the hazards of carbon monoxide. Individuals affected should be removed to fresh outdoor air, and an ambulance should be called. Emergency medical technicians may give pure oxygen to the affected individuals to speed the rate that carbon monoxide is removed from the body. Fresh air and oxygen are needed quickly to reduce the chance of permanent damage being done to the body. Severe effects can include damage to the fetus in pregnant women, as well as heart problems, brain damage, and death.

Strategies

The best way to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is to use electric forklifts, which do not produce carbon monoxide. They are the only reliable tool for safe movement of produce within controlled atmosphere or cold storage rooms.

Emission of carbon monoxide from combustion engine lifts can be controlled through routine engine maintenance and emissions testing. Testing can save up to $7,500 in fuel costs per year for a fleet of ten lifts operating single shifts. The savings will vary widely depending on the situation. Fuel savings occur because engines that burn excess fuel (“rich” running) generate more carbon monoxide as a waste byproduct. Emissions testing is a top prevention strategy that all businesses can benefit from.

All companies are required to have a written Accident Prevention Program and Hazard Communication Program. Examples can be found at: www.lni.wa.gov/safety/basics/Programs/Accident/default.htm.

Employee training on the hazards of carbon monoxide is a component of these written programs. A warning poster and educational pamphlet in English and Spanish to help with employee training are available at no charge from the Department of Labor and Industries Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention Program at (888) 667-4277. A guide for employers explaining how to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning from forklifts is also available. The documents can also be downloaded atwww.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Research/HazardousChem/CarbonMonoxide/Default.asp.