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Safety Hazards of Portable Generator Use

We are in the middle of yet another major hurricane season. Many homes will lose power, leaving people to rely on portable generators for backup. Portable generators are useful when temporary or remote power is needed, and are commonly used during cleanup and recovery efforts. However, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), portable generators kill an average of 70 people a year, making them one of the deadliest products on the market. An additional 2,800 people suffer from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning caused by this equipment each year.

The primary hazards of portable generator use are carbon monoxide poisoning from the toxic engine exhaust, electric shock or electrocution and fire. Most deaths and injuries associated with portable generators are from CO poisoning due to this equipment being used indoors or in partially enclosed spaces.

Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Generators can produce high levels of CO very quickly. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless and colorless gas colloquially known as the “silent killer.” Even if you do not smell exhaust fumes, you may be exposed. If you or someone you are with develops signs or symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning – headache, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, weakness, confusion – get to fresh air immediately and call 911. The CO from generators can rapidly lead to full incapacitation and death. If you experience serious symptoms, get medical attention right away. Inform medical staff that CO poisoning is suspected. If the symptoms occurred indoors, call the fire department to determine if it’s safe to re-enter the building.

Never use a generator indoors or in partially enclosed spaces, including homes, garages, basements, crawl spaces and other enclosed or partially enclosed areas, even with ventilation. Opening doors and windows or using fans will not prevent CO buildup in the home.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends following the labeling instructions that come with your generator, but these instructions often produce confusion. Manufacturers tell consumers not to operate them indoors, but also not to let the machines get wet. Given that people tend to use generators when it is snowing or torrentially raining, it would seem to rule out placing them outdoors. People often solve this problem by putting the generator on their porch or in their garage, but sometimes people don’t put the generator far enough outside: More than a quarter of portable generator deaths occur from these sorts of placements.

Current CPSC labeling requirements have not stemmed the tide of CO poisonings. Companies that make these deadly machines have spent years fighting government efforts to make them safer. Until manufacturers are required to develop a low emission, durable, rain-resistant machine with low temperature tolerances, consumers should remember this message – buyer beware.

FEMA suggests putting the unit outdoors and away from doors, windows and vents that could allow CO to come indoors. Install battery-operated or plug-in CO alarms with battery backup in your home that are certified to the latest safety standards (UL 2034, IAS 6-96, or CSA 6.19.01). Some indication, such as the UL logo, will be posted on alarms that comply with these standards. Test your CO alarm batteries frequently and replace dead batteries.

Other Portable Generator Hazards

Carbon monoxide poisoning isn’t the only safety hazard associated with portable generators. Others include shock and electrocution from improper power use or accidentally energizing other electrical systems, fires from improper refueling or fuel storage and noise and vibration hazards.

Follow these tips to protect against shock and electrocution:

  • Keep the generator dry and do not use in rain or wet conditions. To protect from moisture, operate it on a dry surface under an open, canopy-like structure. Make sure your hands are dry before touching the generator.
  • Plug appliances directly into the generator, or use a heavy duty, outdoor extension cord that is rated (in watts or amps) at least equal to the sum of the connected appliance loads. Check that the cord is free of cuts or tears and that the plug has all three prongs, especially a grounding pin.
  • Never try to power the house wiring by plugging the generator into a wall outlet, a practice known as “back feeding.” This extremely dangerous practice presents an electrocution risk to utility workers and neighbors served by the same utility transformer. It also bypasses some of the built-in household circuit protection devices.
  • If you must connect the generator through the house wiring to power appliances, use a qualified electrician to install the appropriate equipment in accordance with local electrical codes or ask your utility company to install an appropriate power transfer switch.

To prevent fires, never store fuel (gasoline, propane, kerosene, etc.) for your generator in your house.

[Walter Jones is the Fund’s Director of Occupational Safety & Health.]

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