Protecting Parishioners from Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

By Eric Spacek

Carbon monoxide (CO) is often referred to as the “silent killer.” This colorless, odorless gas is released in the exhaust from fossil fuel burning engines in cars, trucks and other machinery. But, it can also be released from poorly working furnaces or equipment inside your building, which can lead to CO poisoning of anyone in the facility.

The risk of CO poisoning is especially high during the winter, when heating systems are frequently running. Organizations can lessen the risk by having a qualified professional inspect all furnaces, gas stoves and fireplaces annually to ensure they are working properly and have adequate ventilation. This professional should also inspect flue pipes for rust holes, poor connections and blockages.

Other ways to prevent CO poisoning include:

  • Install CO alarms Even equipment that has been regularly checked by a professional can unexpectedly malfunction. When this happens, it’s vital to minimize damage by catching the problem quickly. Organizations should install CO alarms throughout their facility. If people are living in the building, an alarm should be installed in every bedroom. CO detectors should be regularly tested and replaced every five to seven years.
  • Never use generators indoors — The exhaust from internal combustion engines contains high levels of CO. If you use gas-burning generators for emergency power during an electrical outage, they should always be placed at least 10 feet away from the building.
  • Use kitchen vents whenever the stove is on — Kitchen stoves are the root cause of many CO poisoning cases. To ensure proper ventilation, organizations should always run the exhaust fan when cooking and open a nearby window to allow fresh air to circulate.
  • Clean out fireplace flues — If your building has a fireplace, be sure to clean out the flue before every use to prevent it from becoming clogged with soot and debris. A restricted flue can trap carbon monoxide inside a building.
  • Don’t leave vehicles idling in a garage or outside for more than a short time — Because vehicle exhaust contains CO, never idle a vehicle near the building’s air input system. If you do, you run the risk of introducing CO into the system and putting everyone in the building in danger.
  • Never use gas-powered tools in confined spaces Like vehicles and generators, gas-powered equipment produces CO from the exhaust. In a tight space, the CO can build up and put the operator in danger of CO poisoning.

Be aware of the warning signs of a CO problem so you can quickly respond and remedy the situation. Signs include:

  • Streaks of soot around fuel-burning appliances.
  • Excess moisture on windows, walls or other cold surfaces.
  • Excessive rust on flue pipes, pipe connections or appliance jacks.
  • Orange or yellow flames (rather than the proper blue color) in the combustion appliances.
  • Small amounts of water leaking from the base of the chimney vent or flue pipe.
  • Damaged or discolored bricks at the top of the chimney.

Of course, it’s most important to protect the people in your building if a problem is detected. Know the signs of CO poisoning, which include:

  • Flu-like symptoms.
  • Tightness across the chest.
  • Shortness of breath.

Keep in mind, any organization that maintains a building has an obligation to protect those inside the facility from CO poisoning — if it doesn’t, the negligence can lead to major injuries and costly lawsuits. By taking every precaution, however, you may have a viable defense in court.

Eric Spacek is Assistant Vice President — Risk Control, Church Mutual Insurance Company, S.I.


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