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Thursday, June 4, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Plant Workers Back; Fumes Tied To Faulty Vent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Sent 100 Employees To Hospital

By Associated Press

Many of the workers treated for carbon monoxide poisoning at a fruit warehouse were back on the job Saturday, the plant general manager said.

One woman remained hospitalized in stable condition at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, which has a hyperbaric chamber used to increase oxygen levels in the blood. Three others taken there were released.

Ed Pariseau, the Brewster Heights Packing Co. plant manager, said a broken belt on an exhaust vent may have been partially responsible for a rise in carbon monoxide that sent about 100 workers to the hospital on Friday.

The vent’s fan moves oxygen throughout the warehouse, where propane-powered equipment is used.

A door that provides some ventilation in the 25,000-square-foot warehouse also was closed at the time of the illnesses, Pariseau said.

He said detectors were installed in the warehouse Saturday to spot any rise in carbon monoxide.

“Most of the same employees are back to work,” he said.

The warehouse is working round-the-clock because it is in the midst of the cherry season, Pariseau said.

Officials from the state Department of Labor and Industries and the Okanogan County Health District are expected to take over the investigation Monday.

Washington State Patrol Lt. Ken Irwin said four propane-powered heaters, a propane fruit dryer and two propane forklifts were running in the warehouse.

Fire crews found low levels of oxygen in the building, he said.

Some workers began suffering headaches and nausea near the end of a 12-hour shift Friday afternoon. Scores of workers began feeling sick about 5 p.m. and some fainted, said Flor Trujillo, a 15-year-old girl who worked at the plant.

“Everyone kept falling on the floor,” she said. “After all this was happening, my legs started feeling weak.”

Trujillo said a supervisor ordered workers to remain inside and on the packing lines after the first workers began complaining. Only when several workers fainted were workers allowed outside, she said.

Most patients were treated and released a few hours after they arrived at the hospital Friday evening, said Howard Gamble, administrator at Okanogan-Douglas District Hospital in Brewster.

Pariseau said Friday night that workers may have been sickened by exhaust fumes from forklifts that were operating in the warehouse.

He said he knew of no other sources of carbon monoxide in the warehouse, where some 100 workers were busy packing cherries and apples.

“There’s a lot of air exchange in the room,” Pariseau said Friday. “I can’t think what else it would be other than the forklifts.”

Temperatures were at about 80 degrees inside the plant at the time, and the heat may also have contributed to the illnesses, he said. The workers also were in the 11th hour of a 12-hour shift.

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