Preventing carbon monoxide poisoning in the livestock and rodeo world
April 11, 2018
Jeff Fleming, Mike Hillman, Jesse Andrus, Rachel Hendrix, Justin Cunningham. The list of people killed by carbon monoxide is, unfortunately, much longer than this. The colorless, odorless gas has killed unassuming individuals within the cowboy community and many others outside the agriculture world, but dialogue about the issue is hushed.
The Center for Disease Control has a web page on the subject. However, there are dozens of pages of forums and videos about the best generator to use and the best size for a trailer with living quarters, but very little information on how to operate a generator in safe parameters; an important topic given the numerous deaths related to generator exhaust.
There are two main rules when operating a generator: place the generator at least 20 feet away from any openings—window, doors, and vents—in your trailer or home and install a carbon monoxide detector.
About seven years ago, Jeff Fleming's wife just had a baby. While she was still in the hospital with their new bundle, he went out to the parking lot to take a nap in his horse trailer, said Ben Cross, owner of Bunkhouse Trailer Sales in Mitchell, Neb.
"Jeff had a generator in his trailer and got killed at the hospital from carbon monoxide poisoning," Cross said. "I know seven or eight people who have done that. We try to be pretty cowboy about things, but that's not something to be very cowboy about."
Many people think they will smell the gas before it can reach toxic levels, said Kanta Sircar, an epidemiologist with the National Center for Disease Control who specializes in carbon monoxide poisoning.
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"Even when a generator is working as it's supposed to, it will emit some carbon monoxide into the air; when it's not working properly, it will emit more," she said. "There are different ways of telling when a generator isn't working, but for the carbon monoxide point of view, always just keep it away, even if it's working the way it's supposed to work."
A common no-no those using generators with their living-quarter trailers are guilty of is leaving the bulky, heavy generator in the back of a pickup with the trailer hooked on or close-by, or unloading a generator but not putting it far enough out.
Cross' wife, Leslie, came dangerously close to a run-in with carbon monoxide poisoning. He's thankful they had a carbon monoxide detector in their trailer, something, he said, should be in every single trailer that will be used near a generator, whether it's yours or a neighbor's.
"We had a trailer with a built-in generator, and my wife wasn't feeling good. Those high school rodeos are long and drawn out, and we had a brand new Logan coach trailer," he said. "She laid down to take a nap, and it was a cold and rainy day, so she had the furnace on. About 40 minutes later, the carbon monoxide detector went off. The wind had switched and blew the exhaust into the trailer. If it hadn't been for that carbon monoxide detector, I don't know if I would have my wife."
Cross just posted a message on his Facebook page a few weeks ago for all those with a living quarters trailer to purchase and install a carbon monoxide detector, which costs about $26.
Trailer models with a generator hard-wired to the roof of the trailer, often near the rear, don't pose as much of a risk, according to Cross, but you still want to have a properly functioning carbon monoxide detector.
"Gas rises," he said. "That's why they put chimneys on top of houses."
Batteries in carbon monoxide and smoke detectors should be replaced at each daylight savings time change, Sircar said. So in the spring and the fall, swap out batteries, even if the detector appears to be working properly.
When setting up camp, make sure that others are no less than 20 feet away from your generator. In Cross' ideal world, he would like for there to be an outlet for each trailer at large events, such as the United States Team Roping event where Cunningham died this year.
"I've never heard of anyone getting electrocuted in a trailer, but I've definitely heard of carbon monoxide poisoning," he said. "If you're in a parking lot with a lot of other trailers, find a way to plug in."
As far as the topic of warming up a cold vehicle or tractor in an enclosed area, especially in winter months, Sircar warns against it.
"We don't recommend idling any vehicle that can emit carbon monoxide poisoning within a closed area," she said. "We make garages warm but also make them to where carbon monoxide can accumulate inside. Within 15 to 20 minutes, you can see levels that can cause symptoms."
If you need to warm a vehicle, do so in an open area where toxic levels cannot form.
For the same reason, livestock shouldn't be at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning if they are out in the open, even if a generator is fired up nearby. Cross gave the example of feeding cattle in a feed yard.
"They're right by the exhaust of trucks. If it's contained in an area, it's deadly. If it's not contained, it all comes down to percentage of carbon monoxide-to-oxygen ratio. When it gets above that level is when that carbon monoxide detector goes off," he said.
Deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning are completely preventable by just being proactive and attentive to detectors.
"The biggest, most-essential thing is be careful and pay attention," Cross said. "Don't be lazy and leave your generator too close."