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Signs of toxic gases in confined spaces

There are a number of ways Iowa workers can be exposed to toxic gases. One common location is within a confined space. According to OSHA, confined spaces in worksites can include places like solos, manholes, ducts, tunnels, pits, tanks, pipelines, among others. Any of these locations can be subject to atmospheric problems, including the presence of toxic gases.

OSHA classifies certain confined spaces as "permit required confined spaces” if they met one of three criteria. One of these standards is that the confined space may possess a harmful atmosphere, which can include a concentration of toxic gases within the space. According to the University of California, toxic gases, although they come in various forms with differing physical characteristics and sources, if they concentrated within a confined space, they can cause harm to the human body through one of two different methods.

First, a toxic gas may act as an irritant. These gases take up small concentrations in the air and may cause health problems if inhaled. Irritants, when in the human body, induce swelling in the mucous linings of the sinuses and lungs. Generally, when a person leaves the source of the irritant, the body will typically recover. However, in the event irritants cause severe swelling of mucous linings, the respiratory tract can be shut off, leaving the person unable to breathe and resulting in strangulation.

If irritants gather in a large enough amount, they can transform into asphyxiates. This variety of toxic gas can displace oxygen in the human body if the gas exists in a large enough concentration. One of the most common asphyxiates workers may encounter is carbon monoxide. This gas, once inhaled, joins with hemoglobin within red blood cells, which cuts down the body’s ability to convey oxygen to the brain and other parts of the body.

No matter what the effects of toxic gas exposure may be, toxic gases can be fatal to workers if the gases are concentrated strongly enough. The lethal nature of irritants and asphyxiates is one reason why confined spaces accessed by workers are regulated by federal law.  

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