A Breath of Fresh Air

Winter storms + power outages + freezing temperatures = carbon monoxide exposure.

Carbon monoxide exposure  = death for hundreds and serious injury for thousands every year.  America’s seniors are most at risk for death by carbon monoxide poisoning, and FEMA has suggested that this is because the elderly are a high risk for undetected exposure.

The carbon monoxide’s source, too much of the time?  A portable emergency generator.  More carbon monoxide deaths occur this time of year, when winter storms can take down power for weeks at a time.  Given the very real dangers of exposure to freezing temperatures,  portable generators can be life savers, particularly in remote areas, providing temporary electric power until the main systems are repaired.  These handy machines are, however, potentially very dangerous.  And carbon monoxide exposure from toxic engine exhaust is not their only downside: there are also very serious noise hazards and the risks of electrical or fuel fires.

To avoid carbon monoxide  poisoning, FEMA offers the following:

  • Never use a generator indoors or in enclosed spaces such as garages, crawl spaces and cellars or basements.
  • Be sure a generator has 3 to 4 feet of clear space on all sides and above it to ensure adequate ventilation.  Measure this if you need to – it’s really important.
  • When using a generator outside, be sure not to place it near doors, windows or vents as this could allow carbon monoxide poisoning to enter and build up in occupied spaces.  
  • Seek prompt medical attention if you have any reason to suspect carbon monoxide poisoning and feel dizzy, light-heated, nauseated, disoriented, short of breath or are losing muscle control.  
  • Do not re-enter the area until it is cleared as safe to occupy by properly trained and equipped personnel. Remember that carbon monoxide gas is odorless, colorless and tasteless.  

To avoid electrical hazards when handling a generator:

  • Keep the generator dry.  Do not use it in the rain or in wet conditions.  If necessary, protect a generator with a canopy.
  • Dry your hands before touching the generator.
  • Do not use electrical equipment that has been submerged in water.  
  • Do not use a generator (or any equipment) that has a strange odor or begins to smoke.
  • Use ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), particularly around damp or wet locations.  You can find extension cords with built-in GFCIs at locations that sell electrical equipment.
  • Always plug electrical appliances directly into the generator using the manufacturer’s supplied cords or extension cords that are grounded (3-pronged).  Be sure to inspect cords before using them to see that they are fully intact and undamaged.  Never use frayed or damaged extension cords.
  • Do not ever attach a generator directly to the electrical system of a structure (house, office, trailer and so on) unless of qualified electrician has properly installed the generator with a transfer switch.  

Generators become hot while running and stay hot long after they’ve been turned off.  Generator fuels – gasoline, kerosene and so on – ignite easily when spilled on any part of a hot engine.  To prevent fire:

  • Turn off the generator and let it cool down before refueling to prevent accidentally spilled fuel from igniting as you fill the tank.
  • All generator fuels should be transported and stored in approved containers that are properly designed, clearly marked for their contents, and vented.
  • Do not smoke around fuel containers.
  • Keep all fuel containers well away from flame-producing and heat-generating equipment and devices.  This includes the generator itself, water heaters, lighters and matches, cigarettes and so on.

Finally, the noise.  Generators make a lot of noise and they shake and vibrate, too.  Too much noise can cause hearing loss and fatigue that affects concentration and job performance.  To fend off these noise hazards:

  • Keep portable generators well away from work areas and any gathering places.
  • If this is not possible, wear hearing protection.

For more information on carbon monoxide poisoning and prevention, please visit the Center for Disease Control site.  

Special thanks to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)  for guidelines. 


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