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Alert: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Associated With Propane-Powered Floor Burnishers

  • Issued: March 18, 2015
  • Content last reviewed: March 2015

Disclaimer: This resource has been prepared to help the workplace parties understand some of their obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and regulations. It is not legal advice. It is not intended to replace the OHSA or the regulations. For further information please see full disclaimer.

Background

There have been several recent reports of cases of worker exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide associated with the use of propane-powered floor burnishers. These particular incidents occurred in retail stores, but burnishers are used in a wide variety of workplaces.

In one instance, two workers were each operating a propane-powered floor burnisher in a retail store in Ontario. One worker lost consciousness due to carbon monoxide poisoning. In a separate incident, 10 workers -- including one worker who became unconscious -- were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after a propane-powered burnisher had been used in their store. The workers had been exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide emitted from the burnishers. Ventilation in both workplaces was found to be inadequate to protect the workers' health.

In other cases, workers have contacted the Ministry of Labour complaining of headaches and dizziness after exposure to carbon monoxide related to the use of propane-powered burnishers. In the United States, two employees of a pharmacy fainted within four hours of arriving for work due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The floors had been burnished prior to the start of their shift.

Locations and sectors

Propane-powered burnishers are commonly used to polish vinyl and terrazzo floors. These floors are typically found in many provincially regulated workplaces.

Propane-powered floor burnishers are usually used by cleaning contractors outside normal business hours, and may therefore escape the attention of workplace inspections by the Joint Health and Safety Committee or Health and Safety Representative at the workplace where the burnishers are being used.

Hazard summary

Most problems occur due to inadequate equipment maintenance, inadequate ventilation, and workers not being provided with the necessary information on hazards associated with the use of propane-powered floor burnishers.

Carbon monoxide is often called "the silent killer" because it gives no clear warning to its victims. It is an invisible gas with no taste or smell. Symptoms of exposure to carbon monoxide may include headache, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting and dizziness.

Early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are often ignored or associated with minor illnesses such as the flu. Continued exposure can cause confusion, loss of consciousness and even death.

Workers who can be affected by carbon monoxide are the floor burnisher operators and others who are in the vicinity during and after use. Carbon monoxide can accumulate quickly in enclosed work areas or poorly ventilated areas, increasing the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide, or CO, interferes with the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen. Exposure to this toxic gas at high concentrations (more than 1,200 parts per million, or ppm) is considered to be immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH)[ 1 ]. CO does not have a STEL (Short Term Exposure Limits) or Ceiling, only a TWA (Time Weighted Average) and excursions. Propane-powered burnishers can emit carbon monoxide levels well in excess of 2 per cent or 20,000 ppm. Carbon monoxide can rapidly accumulate in a workplace without adequate dilution ventilation.

Suggested precautions

If possible, electric-powered or battery-powered burnishers should be used in place of propane-powered burnishers.

If propane–powered burnishers are used:

  • The floor burnishers should be operated and maintained in accordance with manufacturer's instructions and only in well-ventilated areas.
  • Burnishers should be regularly maintained by a qualified person.
  • Engine tuning and determination of the concentration of carbon monoxide in exhaust gases should be included in routine maintenance. Adjustments to the fuel system or carburetion of a propane engine should be done by a qualified person according to the manufacturer's instructions.
  • It is the employer's duty to protect workers from exposure to CO that is beyond the permissible Occupational Exposure Limit (OEL). A properly functioning and calibrated monitor is a method to alert the worker of exposure.
  • The operator should use a personal continuous carbon monoxide monitor as a warning device in the area where the burnishing is being performed. Continuous carbon monoxide monitors should be used in the area where the burnishing is being performed. The monitors should be equipped with audible and visual alarms. The alarms should be set to activate at carbon monoxide levels below the current occupational exposure limit set out in Regulation 833 (Control of Exposure to Biological or Chemical Agents). The monitors should be used in accordance with manufacturer's instructions, including proper calibration.
  • The employer must ensure workers are trained in reading the monitor and what to do when alarms are activated if a monitor is used.
  • Workers must be made aware of the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. They should know the warning signs of carbon monoxide exposure -- headache, faintness, dizziness, confusion, nausea, and irregular heartbeat -- and should NEVER ignore them when working where fuel-burning equipment is being used or has been used.
  • Workers who have been exposed to carbon monoxide beyond the permissible OELs will likely need immediate medical attention.

Relevant legislative requirements include

OELs restrict the level and duration of worker exposure to hazardous biological or chemical agents, including carbon monoxide. They are prescribed in Regulation 833, Regulation Respecting Control of Exposure to Biological or Chemical Agents, under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). The OELs for carbon monoxide are:

  • TWA: 25 ppm. The TWA is based on an eight-hour workday, or forty-hour work week.
  • 30 minute excursion of 75 ppm
  • Ceiling excursion of 125 ppm

Under Section 3 of Regulation 833, Regulation Respecting Control of Exposure to Biological or Chemical Agents

Every employer shall take all measures reasonably necessary in the circumstances to protect workers from exposure to a hazardous biological or chemical agent because of the storage, handling, processing or use of such agent in the workplace [subsection 3(1)].

The measures to be taken shall include the provision and use of:

  1. engineering controls;
  2. work practices;
  3. hygiene facilities and practices; and
  4. if section 7.2 applies, personal protective equipment [subsection 3 (2)].

Without limiting the generality of section 3, every employer shall take the measures required by that section to limit the exposure of workers to a hazardous biological or chemical agent to the limits set out in subsection 3(4) of the Regulation.

Under Section 25 of the OHSA

Employers who contract for floor work are reminded that they also have responsibilities under the OHSA to protect their workers. These employers may wish to ensure that safety issues are appropriately addressed in any contract they enter in which floor burnishing will be a service provided.

The employer shall:

  • take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker [section 25(2)(h)];
  • provide information, instruction and supervision to a worker to protect the health or safety of the worker [section 25(2)(a)];
  • ensure that equipment, materials and protective devices they provide are maintained in good condition [section 25(1)(b)].

Under Section 27 of the OHSA

The supervisor shall:

  • ensure that a worker works in the manner and with the protective devices, measures and procedures required by the Act and the regulations [section 27(1)(a)];
  • ensure that a worker uses or wears the equipment, protective devices or clothing that the worker's employer requires to be used or worn [section 27(1)(b)];
  • advise a worker of the existence of any potential or actual danger to the health or safety of the worker of which the supervisor is aware [section 27(2)(a)];
  • take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker [Section 27(2)(c)].

Under Section 28 of OHSA

A worker shall:

  • work in compliance with the provisions of the Act and the regulations [Section 28(1)(a)];
  • use or wear the equipment, protective devices or clothing that the worker's employer requires to be used or worn [section 28(1)(b)];
  • report to his or her employer or supervisor the absence of or defect in any equipment or protective device of which the worker is aware and which may endanger himself, herself or another worker [Section 28(1)(c)]; and
  • not use or operate any equipment, machine, device or thing or work in a manner that may endanger himself, herself or any other worker [section 28(2)(b)].

Regulation 851, Industrial Establishments

  • Sections 127 and 128 require adequate ventilation and replacement air;
  • Section 130 requires that employers train workers in precautions and procedures, proper use and care of personal protective equipment, and in emergency measures and procedures.

Ontario Regulation 67/93, Health Care and Residential Facilities

  • Sections 19 and 20 require adequate ventilation and replacement air;
  • Subsection 10 (1) requires that employers instruct and train workers in the use, care and limitations of any protective equipment.

The 2014 changes to the Ontario Fire Code requiring CO detectors in certain locations is enforced by local fire departments under the authority of the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, 1997.

Resources

The Technical Standards and Safety Authority
www.tssa.org

Safety Advisory – Carbon Monoxide: Beware the Silent Killer PDF [ 31.45 Kb / 1 page ]

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning – What You Should Know PDF [ 32.17 Kb / 1 page ]

For more information

Workplace Safety and Prevention Services
www.wsps.ca

ServiceOntario e-Laws
www.e-laws.gov.on.ca

Or contact the Ministry of Labour Health & Safety Contact Centre at 1-877-202-0008.

[ 1 ] The U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) immediately dangerous to life and health concentration (IDLH) for CO is 1,200 ppm.The IDLH value is established to allow a worker the ability to escape without loss of life or immediate or delayed irreversible health effects. Thirty minutes is considered the maximum time for escape and the prevention of severe eye or respiratory irritation or other reactions that would hinder escape.

Remember that while complying with occupational health and safety laws, you are also required to comply with applicable environmental laws.

Permission is granted to photocopy Ministry of Labour alerts. Please distribute them widely and post them where people will see them.

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