This piece was originally published in the July/August 2019 issue of electroindustry.
Mark Kohorst, Senior Manager, Environment, Health, and Safety, NEMA
On one afternoon in February 2019, three aviation mechanics working in a hangar in Moberly, MO, were overcome with carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning resulting from a malfunctioning heater inside the structure and rushed to the hospital. The previous month, emergency workers treated 14 people and hospitalized one from a nail salon in Fort Worth, TX, less than a week after three employees of the South Dakota Department of Transportation received medical treatment after exposure to CO in their office. As in Missouri, authorities traced the problem in these latter incidents to a fuel-burning heating appliance.
The victims in these events were fortunate; authorities recognized the CO poisoning and took appropriate actions before any permanent injuries—or worse—could occur. Sadly, this is not always the case with CO exposure. According to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 430 people die in the U.S. every year from accidental CO poisoning, while approximately 10 times that number are hospitalized.1
Carbon monoxide is an especially pernicious hazard because it is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and poisonous gas produced by the incomplete burning of fuels such as coal, wood, charcoal, and natural gas. Undetectable by human senses, CO exposure can incapacitate people before they realize they are in danger, which is why it has been labeled the “stealth killer.”
Minimizing the risk of CO exposure in private and public areas is a priority for NEMA’s Fire, Life Safety, Security and Emergency Communication Section. Member companies in this Section produce the reliable CO alarm and detection systems needed to protect residential, commercial, and institutional spaces, as well as the technical Standards that ensure the systems are installed and operated correctly.
The industry also strives to make CO detection more widespread through legislation and state building code amendments. While states have taken significant strides in recent years to ensure that homes and lodging establishments are protected, other areas where people gather in large numbers have received less attention. Unless and until authorities take steps to address this issue, incidents like those described above will not be uncommon.
NEMA is sponsoring one such measure in Oregon. The effort began in 2017 with proposed legislation but moved to the state’s Building Codes Structures Board when the industry was advised that the appropriate mechanism for this type of initiative was a building code change.
In February 2018, therefore, NEMA submitted a formal proposal to the Structures Board to amend the Oregon Structural Specialty Code (OSSC) to require CO detection equipment in new Group A, Group B, and Group M “occupancies.” These groups essentially embody most commercial, retail, and mercantile facilities. If adopted, this would make Oregon the first state with a building code that requires CO detection systems in restaurants, bars, theaters, churches, libraries, retail stores, and many other highly populated environments.
If Oregon adopts this code requirement, it can serve as a model for action by other states and local jurisdictions. Protecting more people, in more places, against the “stealth killer” is a worthwhile goal, and NEMA Members can provide the means needed to achieve it.
To find out more, contact Mark Kohorst of NEMA Government Relations at 703.841.3249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. ei
- Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisoning Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, January 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/features/copoisoning/index. html