Incident at NY mall shines spotlight on carbon monoxide detection

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?”

Hoeferle said that the costs for businesses from the liability of having an undetected carbon monoxide leak – employee lawsuits, lost productivity and business disruption - far outweigh those of installing detection equipment. He also believes there is still a lack of awareness among the general populace about the dangers and prevalence of carbon monoxide.  

“Part of me thinks that people just don’t understand (carbon monoxide). It’s invisible, you can’t see it, so they just don’t understand it as well,” added Hoeferle. “Some people don’t understand the sources of it, where it comes from. Even in a residential setting, it could be a car running in the garage and they never thought to put in CO detection.”

Additionally, Kris Cahill, also a senior product marketing manager with System Sensor, said one of the problems with carbon monoxide leaks is that they oftentimes originate in places where people least expect it.  “People don’t expect it from a swimming pool, but it’s the devices associated with the swimming pool and it’s the furnaces and things like that,” she said. “It’s not what you might expect sometimes and that I think is the Catch-22.”

With the crackdown that many municipalities across the nation have had on false burglar and fire alarms by imposing fines on repeat offenders, some businesses owners may be worried about possible nuisance alarms, but Hoeferle says that’s “very, very rare” with CO detectors nowadays.

“Back in 1998, there was an incident in Chicago where there was a thermal inversion and basically a layer of car exhaust was trapped at a low level to the ground for a number of days. At that time, it was enough to set off the alarm threshold on all the CO detectors, so it was kind of a major incident,” explained Hoeferle. “Since then, Underwriters Laboratories has changed the alarm thresholds for CO detectors to account for both the amount of CO and the amount of time.”  

Harper believes that business owners need to implement fire and carbon monoxide protection systems appropriate to the risks or hazards they face.

“I’m not saying CO detectors are completely inappropriate. In an older building, it might be a wise item,” Harper added. “I think you have to look at how easily it could be done and where they would be located. At one point, there were codes requiring (CO) detectors everywhere in buildings, including commercial buildings, and (some) were very far from where the fuel-burning appliance was. I think those codes have finally been changed and they are a little bit more appropriate to what the hazard is. Again, I think it needs to be measured and it needs to be considered based on the hazard.”

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