CO2 Safety in Restaurants, Bars, Venues

The worst fear of a restaurant, bar or venue owner is an accident or injury in their establishment. While an owner or manager considers each incident from the from the point of view of the victims, employees and the business, they may not see it from the perspective of the emergency first-responders that are called in when an incident occurs.

This is why we noticed this recent report from the National Firefighter Near-Miss Program run by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

In the report, the fire chief describes how his crew responded to a 911 possible heart attack call. A bread delivery driver with access to a restaurant before opening hours had set off the burglar alarm. On scene, a firefighter reported an “unknown odor” which caused him to leave the restaurant and the driver inside.

While an engineer turned off the gas main, the firefighters entered the building wearing full breathing (SCBA) gear. They recovered the unconscious driver, then tried to determine the cause of the problem.

According to the report:

"The O2 (oxygen) in the building was found to be at 19.2%. It was determined that the restaurant's gas company which fills their CO2 bottles for soda outside, connected to a port which was inoperable. The carbon dioxide displaced the oxygen in the building causing the victim to lose consciousness and fall. Fortunately, the victim set off the burglar alarm.”

You can read the full report here.

While the driver was fortunate in this instance, it was only because of a combination of luck and the well-trained emergency first responders.

CO2 Leaks Can be Deadly

Other victims have not been so lucky.

• An elderly woman died after being found unconscious in a bathroom in Georgia. An investigation revealed she succumbed to a lethal dose of carbon dioxide from a disconnected line in the wall which caused a CO2 buildup in the stall. Nine people were taken to the hospital as a result of the incident.

• In Phoenix, an employee passed out in a stairwell to the basement of a restaurant. Two firefighters who responded to the scene also got sick. The manager of the restaurant said the tank had been refilled a couple hours before the woman passed out.

• In another case, a restaurant employee was trying to help the driver for the company that fills the liquid CO2 tanks when he died of asphyxiation. The driver also died when he tried to help the employee.

• In Houston, TX a CO2 leak in a coffee company killed an employee. CO2 is used to decaffeinate coffee.

Why the sudden rise in CO2-related injuries?

Bulk liquid CO2 delivery systems have seen significant growth over the last decade. The cost and labor savings provided by switching from smaller tanks to larger, bulk tanks is well known. What was not originally considered by restaurant owners was the potential for injury should a leak occur.

Preventing CO2 injuries in your restaurant, bar or venue

There are several things restaurant owners and managers can do to prevent CO2-related injuries in their establishment.

1. Have bulk CO2 systems installed by a reputable and bonded contractor

If you are switching over to bulk CO2, ask your current supplier for recommendations on systems. In some cases, the bulk CO2 supplier may also install the equipment. If you use an outside contractor to install the CO2 feed gas lines in the building, make sure they are also trained and insured for hazardous gas line installation.

After the equipment is installed, pay special attention to the warnings in the instruction manual and documentation. 

2. Proper signage

CO2 warning signs should be clearly visible anywhere bulk CO2 is stored or used. If you use an indoor tank the signs should be posted outside the room where the tank is placed. If you use an outdoor tank, entrance the room where the CO2 enters the building should be posted.

Emergency first responders can also benefit from NFPA 704 diamond placards on the building exterior.These sign perform a valuable function. They give emergency response personnel like firefighters an immediate indicator of the potential danger of the chemicals or gas inside a tank or behind a door. This addresses the health, flammability, instability, and special hazards presented from short‐term, acute exposures that could occur as a result of a fire, spill, or similar emergency. 

The National Board Inspection Code lists specific information that must be posted wherever CO2 storage tanks are used. Click here to download and print the required signage in both English and Spanish (PDF).

3. Employee training

If your employees notice a sharp, acidic odor indoors, what should they do? While CO2 is odorless at low concentrations, those who have been exposed to higher concentrations report a sharp, acidic odor that burns in the sinuses. Employees most at risk are those who attempt to discover the source of the odor instead of notifying other staff and patrons and immediately seeking fresh air. You should have a “gas leak” policy in place – for both CO2 and any other hazardous gas – that every employee is aware of. Make sure employees know what to do if they accidentally disconnect or damage a CO2 line. Consider running emergency drills in off-hours.

4. Install CO2 storage safety alarms

co2 storage safety alarm

While CO2 safety alarms like our RAD-0102 are important, they are not a replacement for any of the safety precautions listed above. The RAD-0102 is designed to protect customers and workers around stored carbon dioxide in breweries, wineries and soft drink dispensing areas in restaurants or venues. It also has audible and visual alarms 1.5% CO2 and 3% CO2 that can control a ventilation fan or send an alarm to the fire department or monitoring company.

Our latest model RAD-0102-6 has an additional alarm that sounds if the 5,000ppm OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) TWA (time-weighted average) for CO2 levels are exceeded in an 8-hour workday.

The real benefit of a safety alarm is that it gives you and your employees precious additional seconds to respond to a CO2 leak before tragedy occurs. In addition, many local municipalities now require CO2 safety alarms in any restaurant that uses bulk CO2.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash


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