We know winter can bring inclement weather that creates hazardous situations for staff and students. We have learned to be proactive and stay alert to storms and the visible hazards of the season, but we often dismiss the hazards we cannot see.
During December and January, the likelihood of carbon monoxide exposure increases. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, carbon monoxide or simply CO, is a colorless, odorless gas resulting from the incomplete combustion of hydrocarbon fuels. CO is harmful because it interferes with blood's ability to carry oxygen to the body's tissues and results in numerous adverse health effects.
Low levels of CO exposure symptoms include headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion while higher concentrations of CO exposure can cause loss of consciousness, brain damage, and death.
While all students and staff could be at risk for CO poisoning, these groups are especially vulnerable: infants, the elderly, and people with pre-existing medical conditions such as heart disease, anemia, or asthma. According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 400 Americans suffer fatalities from unintentional CO poisoning. It also accounts for over 20,000 visits to the ER.
Certain areas are prone to CO exposures and our own practices and behaviors could be contributing to additional risks.
Idling school buses and vehicles
- Pick up points during the winter months means a handful of buses might be sitting for an extended period of time as students arrive, organize, and load into the bus. The close proximity of students and staff to the fumes can be toxic.
- In addition, drivers should be aware and not allow buses to idle near fresh air intake vents for buildings. These vents could act as a pathway to expose all building occupants to CO. Signs are a great reminder of the hazard.
- Operations staff who use white fleet autos should also ensure they do not allow a vehicle to “warm-up” in enclosed garages and shops. Even with open doors and windows, the poisonous gas can build up.
- A qualified mechanic should evaluate all units for possible exhaust system defects. If the exhaust system is not functioning properly CO can escape into the vehicles from holes in the body, windows, or doors. In addition, vehicle operators who are affected by CO have impaired driving ability. Although they may be unaware of the exposure, they could experience slower responses, irrational thinking, and confusion.
Fuel burning appliances
- Boilers, furnaces, generators, and other gasoline, propane, natural gas, or charcoal-burning devices have the potential to put CO into the air. Proper ventilation is essential. Keep vents and flues free of debris before using. Keep in mind windy days may bring flying debris that can block ventilation lines.
- Ensure the major equipment such as boilers and furnaces are routinely checked by certified/qualified technicians to ensure proper functionality.
- Do not use fuel burning equipment in enclosed or partially enclosed structures, near windows or doorways. Again, even low levels of CO can impact a person’s health.
Review this information with maintenance, grounds, transportation, and custodial staff. Their risk is higher due to the equipment they use and operate on a routine basis. Share the symptoms with all staff including teachers, administration, and nurses to ensure they can recognize related illnesses and can seek help immediately.
The following are additional resources regarding the dangers of Carbon Monoxide poisoning:
For additional information on other winter risks please refer to News & Views.
Sources: Mayo Clinic, Centers for Disease Control