Space heaters: Severe cold hits, and people forget dangers

by on February 12, 2013 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

OSHA’s issued a carbon monoxide exposure alert, warning companies to make sure workers don’t use internal combustion in poorly ventilated areas.

The agency cited a worker in a New England warehouse found unconscious and suffering a seizure. They were using a space heater, probably a normal practice. But when the temperatures plunged, they shut the windows and doors – creating a death trap. Several workers got sick on the site.

It’s a tragic mistake, and you’d think people would know better. The key is that extreme weather conditions create an immediate need, and that need sometimes overrides common sense. Be very careful in situations where one change (i.e., shutting a door) creates a death hazard.

For example, one crew we know uses propane-fired space heaters in late fall and early spring. When the weather’s too cold, they either have to shut off the heaters or keep the doors open. They can’t do both.

What to consider
Here are some hazards workers need to consider:

1. Ventilation danger. As OSHA says, any fuel-burning equipment needs adequate ventilation to prevent accumulation of carbon monoxide and other exhaust fumes.

Workers need to either be able to work in the cold, work in adequate ventilation, or find another way to heat their work area. Supervisors can recommend (or supply) cold-weather gear to help workers cope with extremes of cold.

2. Fire or equipment hazard. Workers may bring in their own electrical space heaters. It’s not a bad idea, as long as the equipment is in good shape and is placed properly. That means workers have thought about any potential fire hazards. (This is particularly true of office workers with papers under their desks.) While most heaters won’t start a fire, it should make everyone worry that it will. Keep heaters three feet from flammables.

Supervisors/facility manages) should review company policies on space heaters, communicate it, and then follow up with a walkthrough. Also: Don’t forget trip hazards from extension cords. And workers need to remember to shut them off at the end of the day (supervisors should check), or have automatic shut-off switches.

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