Winter is approaching and that means farmers will be spending more time indoors. Each year in the United States approximately 25,000 people become sick by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Of that number, about 500 people die.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas which is produced as a byproduct of burning carbon-containing fuels. These fuels include kerosene, natural gas, propane and wood. When a person breathes in carbon monoxide, it interferes with the body’s ability to absorb oxygen. This causes symptoms that begin as merely unpleasant but can quickly escalate to life-threatening. In fact, people may have irreversible brain damage from carbon monoxide poisoning before anyone detects a problem at all. Carbon monoxide poisoning also can damage the heart.

The sources of carbon monoxide poisoning include appliances such as boilers, central heating systems, gas fires or water heaters. A car running an enclosed space such as a garage also can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.

We often hear stories of people dying of carbon monoxide in their homes but farmers are at a high risk when working in their machine sheds or shops. Grain bins also can harbor carbon monoxide. In the spring and summer, the doors and windows to machine shops and sheds are usually open but that is not the case in the winter. And when there is a lack of proper ventilation, there is a risk of succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning. The highest risk to farmers comes when tractors or other vehicles are running inside.

It is important that farmers know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning so they can protect themselves and those around them. Anyone who experiences any of these symptoms and may have been exposed to carbon monoxide and should go outside for fresh air and immediately call 911. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness

While carbon monoxide poisoning can be deadly, preventing it is relatively simple. One of the most important steps to preventing carbon monoxide poisoning is to install carbon monoxide detectors. While most people have these in their homes, farmers also should install them in their machine sheds and workshops. It also is important to keep all fuel-burning appliances and engines properly vented and in good repair and refrain from running a generator in an enclosed space such as a machine shed.