Incident at NY mall shines spotlight on carbon monoxide detection

Lawmakers push for legislation requiring the installation of CO detectors in businesses

Last week, a carbon monoxide leak attributed to a faulty water heater flue pipe at the Walt Whitman Mall on Long Island resulted in the death of a restaurant manager and more than two dozen others being sent to the hospital. In the aftermath of the incident, Roger Berkowitz, president and CEO of Legal Sea Foods where the victim, 55-year-old Steven Nelson worked, said that the tragedy should serve as a “wakeup call for all commercial businesses” and called for better codes as it relates to the installation of carbon monoxide detectors.

“The terrible tragedy highlights the inadequacy of the codes for carbon monoxide detectors in commercial spaces. In the wake of Saturday night's tragic events, I have instructed our operations team to conduct an exhaustive safety check at all our restaurants,” Berkowitz said in a statement.  

The incident even has some lawmakers considering passing legislation to address the issue. Suffolk County legislator William Spencer told a New York radio station that all businesses inspected by the health department should be required to have CO detectors. According to a report in Newsday, one Nassau County legislator plans to introduce legislation that would require the installation of CO detectors at all county businesses, schools and recreational facilities.

In a statement to SIW, Laura Abshire, director, sustainability policy at the National Restaurant Association, said that they would work with state and federal officials to ensure the safety of restaurant employees and customers. "There is no higher priority for restaurants than the safety of our team members and our guests,” she said. “The National Restaurant Association wants to work with state and federal regulators to ensure that commercial buildings are safe."

Historically, the majority of legislation surrounding the installation of CO detectors has centered on homes, hotels and schools rather than businesses. The question remains, however, is requiring detectors to be installed at all businesses necessary?

Doug Hoeferle, senior product marketing manager for System Sensor, a maker of fire and life safety solutions, believes there should be some type of code in place for every business because most all of them have some source of carbon monoxide – be it a water heater, furnace or cooking equipment.

“It certainly makes all the sense in the world and we have seen tremendous growth in (the adoption of CO-related legislation),” said Hoeferle. “First it was the residential legislation and now it’s coming along to the commercial side, but we’re of the belief that everyone should be protected from such dangers.”

Jeff Harper, a senior vice president with fire protection and life safety consulting firm Rolf Jensen & Associates, said this incident should serve as a reminder to property managers and business owners that they need to properly maintain their fuel-fired equipment, not just install CO detectors and think that the issue has been addressed.

“If that’s part of a comprehensive, annual maintenance (plan) to use a CO detection meter to verify there is no leakage while the unit is operational, that’s certainly a big step in the right direction of avoiding the problem altogether,” said Harper. “While, I’m not going to say that (businesses) shouldn’t provide (CO detectors) – I certainly believe there is a place for CO detectors -  my concern would be that there is maybe too much reliance on detectors and just like smoke detectors, they go bad after a certain amount of time. They stop functioning the way they’re supposed to and, again, if you don’t get into a good maintenance regimen to your building’s heating equipment, who’s to say you’re going to get into a good maintenance regimen relative to your building’s fire safety equipment?”

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