Pritesh Kumar considers himself a fortunate man. The refrigeration technician was exposed to carbon monoxide while cleaning an evaporator in a cool room when he was overcome with the often-fatal poison.
Now, the Aucklander is on a mission to make everyone aware of the risks of the toxic gas.
Because carbon monoxide has no smell or taste, the 36-year-old initially thought he had a virus until he felt seriously unwell and disorientated. A mild headache and dizziness are often the first symptoms, similar to flu.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is known as the invisible killer and death or brain damage is common outcomes. The toxic fumes are created when wood, petrol or gas only partially burn and can occur when appliances operate in areas with poor ventilation.
In Pritesh’s situation, an LPG forklift was used to lift the technicians to the top of the evaporator unit; he did not realise it was running in the cool room. “It was almost silent; we couldn’t hear it going… “
LPG is clean burning fuel, and that’s why it’s popular in heaters, for cars, trucks, forklifts and small portable engines; it’s doesn’t irritate the nose, mouth or skin.
But every year there are reports of fatalities, usually because people have no idea how lethal it can be. Between 2006-2012, sixteen people died from accidental exposure in New Zealand.
Since his near-fatal encounter, Pritesh convinced his sister to get rid of her portable gas heater and insisted his father, who still lives in Fiji where he grew up and trained, to house his generator outdoors.
“With all the power cuts in Fiji, many people have generators – but they are so dangerous because of the fumes,” Pritesh said.
The father of two, who has been in the industry for almost two decades, had worked in several cool stores. In fact, he’d done this particular job a number of times in the past. He said he approached this job like any other. “We did the safety check and the client provided a forklift and driver. We didn’t know it was LPG…” (Only electric forklifts are now used in the cool rooms on the South Auckland site of accident).
The pair started work around 10 a.m. but by 12.30 p.m. Pritesh had started to feel a bit dizzy. But as he’d skipped breakfast he thought it was just because he was hungry, so he and his co-worker headed outside for a lunch break. After eating, he felt better so he suggested continuing and aiming to finish work by 3 p.m.
They again jumped in the forklift cage to be hoisted back up into the cool room ceiling. Around an hour and a half later Pritesh recalls his brain starting to act strangely.
“I wondered, ‘what are we doing here?’ I stopped thinking!” He asked his co-worker, who didn’t know either.
“But I knew I needed to go out…. I started breathing really fast when I came out and could see my heart beating through my shirt; I thought I was having a heart attack.”
Toxicology researcher and clinical senior lecturer Dr John Fountain, from the Best Practice Advocacy Centre (BPAC) and the University of Otago in Dunedin, explains that as a person is affected by carbon monoxide, oxygen in their bloodstream declines and once the brain is starved of oxygen, the ability to rationalise decreases, which is what happens with climbers or pilots at altitude… “As you become more affected, your inability to realise that something is wrong effects self-rescue,” he explains.
Pritesh phoned his manager at the main Airtech office in Ponsonby, who told him to head to reception and call an ambulance. His manager then phoned his contact at the site to advise them there was an issue – and to check on the other staff. By the time they got to the coolroom, the other technician and forklift driver had collapsed.
After taking a couple of days off work and coming to terms with the inevitable tiredness related to carbon monoxide poisoning, Pritesh started to do some research.
“The first thing I did was to get rid of our gas heater. He acknowledges they are cheap to buy compared with installing a heat pump, but having done the calculations and weighing up risks, he says a heat pump is much cheaper in the long run – and that’s not just because he works for a company that installs them.
“I went back to finish the job a week and a half later and was aware I could’ve died in there. My wife called me 20 times that day!”
Rather than face prosecution for the workplace accident, both companies involved applied for Enforceable Undertakings with WorkSafe New Zealand. Under current legislation, both parties are considered liable. Enforceable Undertakings detail a list of actions that organisations must undertake, including improving health and safety standards for workers in their industry and community. Airtech’s remediation will cost around $80,000 and NZ Hothouse Group $185,000.
Pritesh is now alert to any risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. “I never start the car without the garage door open, even in winter… I have this feeling that something could happen. Even when people have got compliance for their gas heaters, for example, they can be faulty.”
The technician has been back to the refrigeration company in Fiji where he worked and spoke to his former boss to be careful if his workers are still using LPG forklifts.
And he recently returned to Fiji to complete his final exam and talked to his lecturer about the hazards of carbon monoxide and LPG. He stressed that people needed to know that the clean-burning gas did not give off any smell, or NO, (nitrogen oxide), the pollutant gases emitted from diesel or petrol engines. Although he knew about carbon monoxide poisoning, he had not been taught as part of his apprenticeship training, about the danger of exposure to carbon monoxide in relation to LPG. Pritesh says he expected to smell it.
But now he knows that is not the case and he’s keen to share the message.
“It’s good it happened; now I have the knowledge,” Pritesh said.
Lyn Barnes is a former Senior Lecturer of Journalism at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), who continues to write on issues close to her heart.