grinding in basement

All too often we hear news reports about a worker or D.I.Y. person has perished. While performing simple tasks with petrol powered equipment. Generally resulting in carbon dioxide poisoning from a buildup of carbon dioxide in a confined environment.

In the USA, more than 800 workers a year die on the job. Many of these deaths result from the breathing in of harmful chemicals like carbon monoxide. 

Carbon Monoxide (C.O.) is so dangerous because it can’t be seen or smelt and workers are generally not aware that the danger exists until it is too late. 

Preventing this type of workplace accident

The sad reality is that these deaths can be prevented. There are a number of scenarios that we could discuss here. But let’s look at one scenario which could occur in almost any industrial workplace. Including farms and even home basements.

This scenario on workplace carbon monoxide poisoning shows how quickly workers can be overcome. Thus, having adequate workplace procedures will help to avoid such situations. Example. The use of proper protective equipment.

Employers have a duty of care to provide a safe workplace. Furthermore, to protect their employees, customers and the public when they are at the workplace. Therefore, procedures and emergency planning are essential. 

The scenario.

Two workers were working in the basement of a two-storey family home. Framing and finishing the basement for a family who was about to move into their newly constructed home. One worker was using a petrol-powered wet saw to cut a hole in a wall for a window. The other worker was mapping out other windows to be cut out once the current window work was complete.

ventilating the room

An opportunity for ventilation of gases

Within the basement were two other windows which if opened they could have provided life-saving ventilation and fresh air. But they were sealed with coverings designed to keep out moisture and rain. So there was no significant ventilation to help stop the build-up of poisonous carbon monoxide.

As the worker continued to cut the concrete with the petrol saw, the exhaust was releasing fumes into the air. Which contained many chemicals but the deadliest of them all was carbon monoxide.

It didn’t take too long before the oxygen in the room was displaced by the carbon monoxide. Creating an environment that would be unable to sustain life. These deadly gases can’t be smelt, seen or tasted so the workers were totally unaware of the hazard building.

The silent killer

The workers probably could have smelt other products of combustion. But would have felt that they weren’t a significant danger because they still felt ok. Little did they know, that they were being affected. Still, no fresh air was coming into their work area.

The worker who was outlining the new window started to feel a little unwell and complained of a headache. She decided to leave the basement and go up and out of the basement. She fell to the ground before she could get to the stairs which were centrally located in the basement.

The co-worker saw what was happening. Turned off the saw and started over to the other worker to assist her. He became unwell and dizzy and collapsed on the ground also.

Help Arrives.

Co-workers arrived on the scene about two hours later. Much of the poisonous carbon monoxide was replaced by oxygen. This ventilation would have taken some time so the co-workers were in danger themselves if the carbon hadn’t dispersed and been replaced by oxygen.

They were too late and both workers had died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

How could these deaths have been prevented and the analysis?

These workers were in a confined space where no fresh air was ventilating the room. Also, the exhaust of the petrol saw was not released to the outside environment.

The carbon monoxide stayed in the confines of the room. There was also no gas monitoring equipment or even a simple alarm to warn the workers that there was a danger to their life present.

In hindsight the potential ways to eliminate the hazard could have been any of the following (this is not a complete list):

  1. Not use petrol saw in the first place. Use a hydraulic or pneumatic saw which doesn’t produce harmful gasses.
  2. Use mechanical ventilation in conjunction with air monitoring equipment.


 We have mentioned here that this tragedy resulted from the use of a petrol-powered cutting saw. Even so, there are a number of other pieces of equipment that may have a similarly devastating effect. And they include petrol powered items like a generator, water pump, space heater and trowels.

Confined space codes.

The above example shows the importance of employers following National and state-based Work Health and safety standards. All to ensure that workers are provided with a safe workplace. These deaths are preventable and the protective measures mentioned above will save workers life.

It is mandatory to have Emergency procedures in the workplace. Even so, if these procedures are never used that would be a great result. Just as important are procedures that mitigate risk to lives. 

The only effective way for such safe outcomes is to provide procedures. Secondly, make sure that workers are adequately trained and follow procedures they are provided with. This includes proper supervision and where required “enforcement”.

In conclusion. 

With the many potential hazards in the workplace carbon monoxide is one of the worst. With no smell, visibility or taste. Awareness training of the risk of carbon monoxide risk will save lives. If you would like further information click on the links above or make contact with your state’s work health and safety authority.

By Ken Walker

Hi, I'm Ken. I am the owner and senior director of Syncretic training Group Pty Ltd. If you have any questions about the website content or require guidance please let us know we are always happy to help.

Leave a Reply