David Coulthard, of Thompsons Solicitors, discusses the serious health risks associated with poorly-maintained, propane forklift trucks
Injuries associated with poorly-functioning, propane-powered forklift trucks are reported extensively in occupational health literature.
In a well-functioning, propane-powered forklift truck, fuel combustion produces water vapour and carbon dioxide. But, when the fuel mix is incorrect, particulates and carbon monoxide (an odourless gas that is taken up preferentially by haemoglobin in the blood) can be produced instead. The risks associated with this can range from headaches, dizziness and nausea to acute carbon monoxide poisoning.
Incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning associated with LPG-powered forklifts in industrial settings were highlighted in a 1999 report by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report set out a number of occasions where employees regularly suffered the first signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Up to half of those who suffer severe carbon monoxide poisoning are thought to experience long-term neurological or psychiatric symptoms. These symptoms can fall into three categories – changes in behaviour, movement (motor abnormalities), and memory or thinking (cognitive dysfunction).
When speaking to a forklift truck worker who experienced severe carbon monoxide exposure, he told me that he didn’t recognise the symptoms mentioned above, but he did report feeling “down”, experiencing higher levels of anxiety than previously and severe fatigue.
This is unsurprising given a case control study of the neurological consequences of carbon monoxide poisoning found while there was no difference between groups when cognition was tested, patients who had experienced carbon monoxide poisoning did have a lower quality of life, were more depressed than those who had not been exposed to carbon monoxide and suffered more from post-traumatic stress disorder. They also showed significantly lower cognitive performance on processing speed, mental flexibility, inhibition, and working and verbal episodic memories. The prognosis of symptoms resulting from carbon monoxide poisoning are not well documented.
Due to the high frequency of injuries associated with using an LPG-fuelled forklift indoors, in the United States, it is considered good practice for employees to be trained to recognise the symptoms associated with carbon monoxide poisoning.
Unfortunately, the Health and Safety Executive in the UK seem less concerned with these dangers. They provide only the briefest of warnings in the rather unhelpfully titled COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) SR14 and this devotes just one line to the subject: “Test LPG fuelled engines for carbon monoxide emissions regularly”.
Thompsons Solicitors wants employers to take safety seriously. They have a legal duty of care to protect their employees in the workplace. This includes preventing or reducing workers’ exposure to hazardous substances at work and complying with the COSHH Regulations 2002.
We launched our ‘Under the COSHH’ campaign to help employees understand whether their employer has a robust health and safety structure in place to protect them and their colleagues. Our Under the COSHH toolkit is designed to make workers aware of the hazardous substances associated to their work, and provide advice on what to do to help prevent ill-health and minimise the risk of accidents at work.
In light of the clear evidence of the danger of serious injury associated with poorly-maintained propane forklift trucks and inadequately ventilated premises where such vehicles are used, we urge employers to make themselves aware of the risks – and ensure their workers are aware, too.
 Rimmer TW, Yarnell SH. Controlling forklifts’ exhaust emissions. Occup Health Saf.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Carbon monoxide poisoning
associated with use of LPG-powered (propane) forklifts in industrial settings–Iowa,
- MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 1999 Dec 17;48(49):1121–4.
 Pages B, Planton M, Buys S, Lemesle B, Birmes P, Barbeau EJ, et al.
Neuropsychological outcome after carbon monoxide exposure following a storm: a
case-control study. BMC Neurol. 2nd ed. BioMed Central; 2014 Jul 21;14(1):122.