The Silent Killer—How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Exposure

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a toxic gas that cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled. At low levels of exposure, individuals experience flu-like symptoms, while high levels of CO exposure can cause death. One study reports that in 2010, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 80,000 carbon monoxide poisoning incidents, resulting in an average of nine such calls per hour.

CO is produced by the incomplete burning of various fuels, including coal, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane, and natural gas. Because CO is colorless, odorless, and undetectable to human senses, people may be unaware that they are being exposed. Possible sources of CO in concession operations include improperly vented gas space heaters, leaking chimneys and furnaces, and back-drafting from furnaces, gas water heaters, wood stoves, fireplaces, and gasoline-powered equipment such as gas stoves and generators. Automobile, bus, and boat exhausts can also be sources of CO.

CO detectors are required for concession rental houseboats, pursuant to NPS policy issued in 2012, but there is currently no specific requirement to install CO detectors in concessioner lodging or other operations. Many states, however, have specific regulations regarding CO detectors; for more information about these regulations, click here.

As a safety best practice, concessioners are advised to install CO detectors in lodging locations where there are gas space heaters, furnaces, or fireplaces. Concessioners should also check other visitor and staff areas such as building lobbies, common areas, and employee housing, and install CO detectors where potential CO sources are present. This recommendation is being incorporated into new lodging operational standards as a requirement, and will be referred to during periodic evaluations. CO detector requirements in general will apply to new contracts, new construction, or renovation.

There are different types of CO detectors available on the market, including the following models:

  • Battery-operated models are preferred because CO rises, and the detector can be placed near or on the ceiling. Installation of a battery-operated model involves screwing the base into the ceiling or wall, putting in the battery, and screwing the detector to the base. Batteries should be replaced in CO detectors annually.
  • Plug-in models do not require the regular replacement of batteries, but these models must be placed near an outlet. Plug-in models may not be ideal for lodging operations because guests often use outlets for personal electronic devices.

  • Hardwired models require that electrical wiring be built into the walls of a building or room. Installing a hardwired model is more complicated, as it requires work within a building’s walls, whereas the battery-operated and plug in models do not require structural work.

Consumer reports recommend purchasing detectors with alarms that sound louder and more often as CO levels increase. Detectors can cost anywhere from $15 to $60, depending on the model type and features.

Regardless of the type of detector chosen, detectors should be installed in a location that is away from fuel-burning appliances, and at least 15 feet from heating or cooking units and humid areas like bathrooms. It is also important that the detector is not obstructed by furniture or draperies. To ensure that detectors continue to operate properly over time, it is recommended that they be tested weekly.

The level of effort required to address potential CO exposure in your concession operation depends on the size of your operation and what model of CO detectors you purchase. Installing CO detectors in a large operation will be more expensive and time-intensive than installation in a small operation. Additionally, you may be subject to installation requirements published in NFPA 720. Concessioners should coordinate with the park to determine applicability. Battery-operated detectors are more affordable and easier to install than the alternatives. Whether you invest in an extensive system or choose a simpler approach, installing CO detectors in your concession operation will help protect your employees and guests from this silent killer.

More information on CO poisoning can be found in the CO fact sheets prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.