Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) Program
Carpenter Dies from Carbon Monoxide Poisoning while Using a Gasoline Powered Generator Inside a Construction-site Storage Container - Massachusetts
On December 26, 2006, a 43-year-old finish carpenter (the victim) died from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, while he was working inside a metal storage container where a gasoline powered generator was operating. The victim was putting equipment away and completing tasks at the end of the day, after having installed a newel post in a residential home in a new housing complex. The generator was running, providing energy for a light. When the victim did not return home after work and did not answer his cell phone, his wife and her two brothers went to the storage container and found the victim. He had been overcome by CO and had collapsed inside the storage container. A call was placed for emergency medical services (EMS). One of the victim’s wife’s brothers turned off the generator and pulled the victim out of the storage container. They administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Once EMS arrived the victim was transported to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead. The Massachusetts Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) Program concluded that to prevent similar occurrences in the future, employers should:
Home builders / general contractors of large construction projects should:
In addition, manufacturers of fuel-burning generators should:
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous, colorless, odorless and tasteless gas produced by burning fuel, such as gasoline, kerosene, oil, propane, coal or wood. When fuel-burning equipment, tools and appliances are used in enclosed spaces, or spaces without good ventilation, CO levels can build up quickly and can result in death.
CO is extremely hazardous, because it deprives the body of oxygen and reaches deadly levels without being detected 1. Estimated deaths from CO in the United States, including those associated with work, have ranged from 109 to 188 per year (1999-2002). Since 1999, the percentage of those estimated CO poisoning deaths specifically associated with generators has increased annually, from 7% in 1999 to 24% in 2002. In the years from 2002 through 2005, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) noted 253 non-fire CO fatalities specifically associated with engine-driven tools, of which 218, or 86%, were from generators. 2
On December 27, 2006, the Massachusetts FACE Program was notified by a local fire department through the 24-hour Occupational Fatality Hotline, that on December 26, 2006, a carpenter was overcome by CO. An investigation was initiated. On February 15, 2007, the Massachusetts FACE Program Director and an assistant traveled to the home builder / general contractor’s office where they met the vice president / project manager for the construction project and discussed the incident and observed the area where several contractors’ storage containers were located. The death certificate, and police and fire reports were reviewed. A telephone interview was conducted with the wife of the victim.
The victim was a finish carpenter with 15 years of experience. The victim had worked as a self-employed carpenter for the same home builder / general contractor conducting residential and commercial development on a single, large multi-acre residential project for approximately seven years. Depending on the assignments, over the years, the victim would sometimes hire assistants. He usually worked six days per week, starting at 7:00 a.m., but had only worked several hours on the day of the incident, which was during a six-week layoff due to a decline in residential housing sales. The victim was an experienced and skilled carpenter, and had received an award for outstanding workmanship from the home builder / general contract manager three years prior to his death.
The victim was contracted by the home builder / general contractor as a master carpenter. His tasks included, but were not limited to, installing plywood floors, baseboards, interior trim around windows and doors, and wood stairs. The victim provided his own tools and was one of many contractors working in constructing new residences.
The home builder / general contractor controlled the construction of new units in the complex, including maintaining a permanent office within the complex, hiring trades for all construction activities, mandating requirements for trades to work in this community, and enforcing speed limits on the streets. The home builder / general contractor representative reported that they had a health and safety manual, provided construction safety seminars and sent email safety tips to contractors, and maintained lists of contractors’ attendance at training sessions, as well as injuries sustained by contractors and their employees. It was not known if the safety trainings had ever included the hazards of fuel-burning portable generators or CO. Subcontractors were deemed “partners in trade,” but not employees.
In order to store tools and materials on-site, most of the larger contractors hired by the home builder / general contractor rented storage containers and parked them in the residential complex, on private land in an area surrounded by a chain-link fence, provided by the home builder / general contractor specifically for the placement of these containers (Figure #1). It was reported that contractors used the containers to store tools and equipment instead of using unlocked homes under construction as a storage location or transporting materials back and forth daily in their vehicles. The victim had rented one of these metal storage containers for this use for the previous couple of years. The metal storage container was 20 feet long, eight feet wide and 12 feet high with double doors on one end, and was located at the far corner of the storage area, adjacent to approximately five others in this area within the complex. During the investigation, the home builder / general contractor’s representative reported that they were unaware that the victim had a storage container on-site.
The portable gasoline-powered generator involved in the incident was new when purchased by the victim. The generator was equipped with a 15 horsepower engine, seven gallon fuel tank, and provided 8,000 watts of power (Figure #2). The victim used the generator when he needed to operate electrical power equipment when no electricity was available, such as in the storage container and, at times, in the residences under construction. There were no warnings on the generator regarding the hazards of CO.
The incident occurred during a six week layoff period that was related to a decline in residential housing sales. The victim had not been working during this period but was on-site the day of the incident, the day after Christmas, because the home builder / general contractor asked the victim to install a newel post in a house that had recently been purchased. The task took the victim a few hours to complete. After finishing the task, the victim went to the storage unit to put his tools and equipment away, and complete some tasks. At the time of the incident, the generator was located inside the storage container and turned on, powering a light. The double doors to the storage container were partially open.
The victim had called his wife around 6:00 p.m. to inform her that he would be home soon. At approximately 9:30 p.m., the victim’s wife and her two brothers went to look for the victim, retracing his usual route to and from work to see if he had trouble with his truck. When they arrived at the location of the storage container within the complex, they found the victim’s pick up-truck with the dome light turned on, but no one inside the cab. They could hear the generator running inside the container. The victim was found inside the storage container lying on the floor. One of the victim’s wife’s brothers turned the generator off and dragged the victim out of the storage unit. CPR was administered until EMS arrived. Once EMS arrived, the victim was transported to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.
On the day of the site visit, both personnel of the FACE project had difficulty finding the location of the storage containers, the location of the incident. This was after looking at a map in the on-site office of the home builder / general contractor and getting verbal directions. This multi-acre residential complex and construction site contains a maze of new roads, many of which are dead ends.
Cause of Death
The medical examiner listed the cause of death as inhalation of products of combustion.
Recommendation #1: Employers should ensure that fuel-burning generators are placed outside of buildings and storage containers when operating.
Discussion: Never operate fuel-burning generators indoors, near windows or entrances to indoor worksites, or in enclosed or partially enclosed areas where the products of combustion might be drawn into working areas. On construction sites, generators are frequently necessary to provide power for tool operation. But fuel-burning generators are an extremely hazardous source of CO and have caused the deaths of hundreds of people.
The storage container in which the victim was working was 2,880 cubic feet. It is estimated that the 15 horsepower engine would have generated 167,500 mg of CO per minute.1 Given the size of the storage container, the concentration would have exceeded the Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH) concentration of 1,200 parts per million (ppm) in less than one minute. Fuel-burning generators create and emit CO, and when operated in or near an enclosed area the CO concentration can reach lethal levels. The CO level can easily be underestimated by users due to the colorless, odorless, and tasteless characteristics of CO. NIOSH wrote that a 5-kilowatt engine, less powerful than the 8-kilowatt generator in this incident, produces an exhaust CO concentration equivalent to 252 to 572 idling vehicles.
|Figure 1. Incident location with similar metal storage containers.
|Figure 2. Portable gasoline powered generator involved in the incident.|