Taking action against the silent killer

May 1, 2007 By    

Carbon monoxide poisoning has earned the notorious designation as the silent killer because it is colorless, odorless and silent.

 John McCoy LP/Gas Magazine Columnist
John McCoy LP/Gas Magazine Columnist

Within the propane industry, the recent Incident Data Report prepared by the Propane Education & Research Council found that even though accidents attributable to carbon monoxide poisoning represent just 1 percent of all reported incidents over a three-year period, it accounted for 4 percent of all injuries and 22 percent of all deaths.

Carbon monoxide incidents are most commonly seen with the use of portable and fixed heaters, according to the report. The leading cause of these incidents is equipment malfunction. The report does not give specifics on what the universe of malfunctions typically is, but it likely includes inefficiently burning appliances and improperly vented appliances, among other causes.

The leading cause of these incidents with portable heaters is human error. The best example of this would be using a portable heater in a confined tent or temporary structure without sufficient intake of air over time.

While any incidents that cause injury should be avoided, there is a limited amount that can be done to address these incidents from the involvement of the typical propane marketer.

All appliances – temporary or permanent – come with instructions and warnings. The instructions will typically tell the consumer how to install and operate the appliance so as to avoid hazards such as carbon monoxide poisoning. These same manufacturers also typically warn that failure to properly follow these operators manuals can lead to serious consequences such as carbon monoxide poisoning.

PERC has recently developed literature that warns consumers about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisonings. It is an excellent document that you can easily make available to your customers.

It is my impression that the existence of carbon monoxide detectors is well known within the general consumer population. If my impression is correct, there is at least one line of cases that stand for the proposition that things of common knowledge need not be warned about.

Nonetheless, manufacturers and PERC have taken steps to warn consumers and draft warnings for consumers that reinforce the message for this known risk.

Installation of gas detectors is not a standard practice in the gas or appliance installation industries. It is a consumer choice.

Installation of carbon monoxide detectors brings with it a whole new set of potential liability concerns, including proper installation, maintenance and use of a defective or recalled detector. These risks apply to all product installations; it is nothing unique.

If you choose to offer this service, you need to be aware that it brings with it these additional concerns. Be sure your service personnel are properly trained in the installation of these detectors before you take on this service.

Propane marketers are concerned about making their gas systems as safe as can be for their customers. One of the ways to do that is to provide warnings as recently created by PERC.

If you also service appliances, you want to make sure the appliances are properly installed according to the applicable codes and the manufacturer’s installation manual and that that manual is left with the consumer so that they are aware of the need for regular maintenance.

If these steps are followed, propane retailers or appliance sellers can rest comfortably that they have taken reasonable steps to provide customers a safe system and helpful information about the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning and availability of gas detectors.

John V. McCoy is president of McCoy & Hofbauer, S.C. and specializes in the representation of propane companies. He can be reached at 800-599-8300 or jmccoy@mh-law.us.

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