Auto Repair Shop Carbon Monoxide Control: A False Sense of Security?

Car dealer service department

Large auto repair operations often have vehicles running inside.

That was the reading on the handheld carbon monoxide detector brought along on a follow-up safety consultation visit to the service department of a large automobile dealership. The conditions were typical for the the early part of their service day – several vehicles running at once inside their 20,000 square foot service area, with one of the six large overhead doors fully open to the outside and the others closed. A discussion with the service manager revealed that this was typical in the morning, when cars would be brought in to be checked out and run briefly for diagnosis.

Exposure With Consequences

The spot reading of 400ppm of CO does not tell the whole story related to exposure in the garage. Just a few minutes before, the shop was closed and the reading was effectively zero. And a few minutes later the reading began dropping from the peak. But the 400ppm number was definitely cause for concern. That level is enough to approach short-term exposure issues (see the CDC data on that risk) with exposed workers, and if it is sustained for long it could cause serious issues.

Why Was This Occurring

Even though the facility was equipped with good means of ventilation and a dedicated exhaust removal system, neither of these controls were helping much. The early spring moderate temperatures meant that the ventilation system wasn’t running in the morning, and not one of the running vehicles were hooked up to the exhaust removal system. When asked about this, one of the mechanics said that they will use the system if running a car for a while. When he and others were queried further as to just how long that meant, the answer was far from definite. “More than five minutes.”  “Any extended time.” “Ten minutes or more…” It was clear that this wasn’t well defined, and also was not based on any actual determination of what level was an issue. It was much more about convenience, an informal determination on each technician’s part about if it was worth the trouble of hooking a car or truck up.

Learning from Other Environments

Some of the work I’ve done recently that centers on parking lot and parking garage safety has highlighted the usefulness of carbon monoxide monitoring systems. Though I was focusing on pedestrian safety and vehicle-into-building crashes, many elements of parking safety were looked at to some degree. It became clear that the issue of carbon monoxide in parking structures had been given a lot of attention and had subsequently become the focus of regulatory activity. This set the stage for some great technological options for reduction, monitoring, and exhaust of carbon monoxide that could be applied. In the case of the auto dealership service department, it was monitoring that was a glaring omission from their arrangement.

Industrial Carbon Monoxide Detector

Industrial Carbon Monoxide Detector

Appropriate Detection

A survey of some other auto repair environments showed that some were employing consumer/household style carbon monoxide detectors. The rise of UL standard 2034 and its inclusion in many building codes has led to good availability of simple consumer style detectors. Many more homes are protected today than just a few years ago, but the problem with using a UL2034 detector in a commercial setting such as a garage is that the standard for these residential detectors places a great deal of importance on avoiding false alarms, which means that these detectors are not nearly as sensitive as  most commercial models. The right solution for a garage environment typically requires some analysis by an industrial hygienist, and would include an appropriate advanced detector along with both alerts and possibly automatic activation of  ventilation.

What About Procedures?

Note that the engineered solution is the right place to begin controlling this hazard. The service manager’s suggestion that they begin with a procedural response, including a shorter timeframe to attach the exhaust removal system, and more overhead doors open was not a sufficient solution. The way the shop operated, the longstanding practices employed, and the difficulty in determining action triggers in the existing environment all pointed toward not accepting an administrative-only solution. Naturally, every situation is different, and this case does not indicate that all similar operations should employ the same controls, but it does show that the right factors need to be considered, and any controls employed should have a good expectation of actually being effective!

Policy vs Reality: Sick Restaurant Employees

Restaruant worker with stuffy nose

“I’m Kayla and I’ll (cough) be your (cough) server today.”

An Awkward Moment

I knew I needed to ask the question, and I was quick with it when the server returned to my table. “Do you have a cold?” She had a look on her face like she’d been caught red-handed in something as she paused before answering. “Why, uh, no, no, I just have …allergies.” Unfortunately her obvious stuffy nose, and very productive-sounding throat clearing moments earlier at the waitress station (which was in easy hearing range for me, even though she might have thought otherwise) told a very different story. I acknowledged her answer with a nod, and watched as she set my beverage down and made a rapid retreat deep into the kitchen. About two minutes later she came back to the table and was barely there when she reinforced her earlier answer, in the least scratchy voice she could muster. “Allergies, I have allergies, not a cold, no, just allergies,” before rushing away again quickly.

Indications and Realities

Of course it is possible that she was indeed suffering from allergies, and not a cold, but given both her symptoms and her reactions, I wasn’t exactly reassured. The establishment that I was dining at that morning already had a few weak spots evident in the area of food safety and sanitation, which only contributed to my ultimate feeling of unease.¬† I had noticed the manager off in a different section of the counter area, busy discussing someone’s break coverage, but not really circulating around. I also noticed that my server seemed to be steering clear of the manager as much as possible.

Getting Serious

Most chain restaurant establishments have a policy about not coming to work sick. Hotels, retail establishments, institutional food service, and other public-contact jobs usually include this policy as well. It’s typically documented somewhere in the new hire materials or the employee handbook. I’d expect that the restaurant that I was in that morning had a similar policy. The issue comes down to whether it is taken seriously or not. If you’d like your guests to have confidence in the sanitation of your establishment, consider the following points:

  • When new hires are trained, how is your “not working sick” policy explained and emphasized?
    Aside from your handbook or training materials, what sort of visible reminders such as job aids or posters are present?
  • Do managers make a point of spending some time with each crew member each shift? (Note that this serves a much broader purpose that just understanding if someone is healthy or not!)
  • How serious are you about your policy? Are you unwilling to compromise on it when staffing is tight for other reasons?

And perhaps most significantly, how complete and effective is your policy about calling in sick? It is not an easy balance to strike to set a policy that considers the importance of good attendance and holds people accountable for that, while at the same time conveying an understanding that it is expected that you will not come to work sick.

Your Attendance Policy

I recall years ago, at one facility I was managing, having an employee call in sick, pleading for some consideration for his eclipsing the allotted number of absences and lates. His plea: “Yes, I’ve called in sick a bunch of times already this quarter, but this time I’m really sick!”

Setting and enforcing an attendance policy can be an involved and tricky discussion, but one thing you can do today is to consider just how clear you are on one non-negotiable in any business with public contact: “We don’t want you to come to work when you are sick. It is important for our customers that everyone understands and acts on that.” Training is important, but noticing what’s going on, and offering reminders and guidance is even more important.