Technical Safety BC takes leading role to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning
Each year in BC, numerous carbon monoxide (CO) incidents are reported to the authorities. Some come via 911 from panicked homeowners who have been alerted by their CO detector sounding. Others come from contractors, technicians and utility employees who have identified fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, boilers, water heaters or fireplaces that are not working properly.
Technical Safety BC investigates approximately 10 serious CO incidents that take place in areas within our jurisdiction each year. We also respond to a multitude of reported equipment hazards that present a risk of CO exposure and we work to ensure the hazards are remedied before they lead to an incident. According to our findings, most incidents occur in residences and involve residential furnaces, boilers or water heaters.
In July 2016, Technical Safety BC was alerted by natural gas provider FortisBC that a CO poisoning incident had occurred at a West Vancouver home. One individual had died and three family members had been admitted to hospital.
Technical Safety BC launched an investigation to understand the cause of the CO poisoning. We learned that the family had been running a boiler to heat their pool at the same time as the air handler for the air conditioner was operating. An opening in the ducting supplying the air handler within the boiler room created a negative pressure condition inside the room that contained the boiler. As a result, CO and other combustion products produced by the boiler did not vent outside but instead were circulated throughout the home by the air conditioning system. With all the doors and windows closed and no CO detectors installed, the residents had no way of knowing the home was filling with the colourless, odourless, tasteless toxic gas.
WorkSafeBC defines safe eight-hour exposure levels to CO as 25 parts per million (ppm). Home CO detectors are typically set to provide warnings at 30-70 ppm. Exposure to concentrations of 800 ppm is known to cause death within hours. The fire department reported measuring up to 900 ppm of CO within the home’s ambient air.
After BCSA released our incident report, FortisBC asked BCSA gas safety officers to share the lessons learned from the investigation with its employees. In September 2016, BCSA attended three workshops for more than 100 FortisBC technicians to discuss CO hazards, incident investigations, the importance of incident reports, and what issues to look for in their day-to-day work.
“One of our roles is to investigate reported incidents, determine the cause and contributing factors, and recognize trends,” says Technical Safety BC's Liam McKearney, Gas Safety Officer. “But where we can really make a difference is when we share our learning with others to try and improve safety outcomes for the future.”
By working collaboratively with FortisBC, Technical Safety BC is taking the information gleaned from incident investigations and sharing it with the contractor community to help spread awareness of important safety risks. Technical Safety BC also works to educate BC residents of the risks of carbon monoxide exposure through an annual awareness campaign that includes a paid advertising campaign, media outreach and social media.
More information about CO safety is available at www.technicalsafetybc.ca/carbon-monoxide.
This article was originally published in the 2016 State of Safety.