REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Three deaths linked to a faulty pipe that allegedly exposed guests to a lethal dose of carbon monoxide at a Best Western in Boone, North Carolina, have hoteliers stressing the importance of carbon-monoxide safety.
With rare exceptions, hotels all have sources of carbon monoxide, sources said, and without proper installation, maintenance and inspection, hotel owners and managers could be putting their guests at risk.
“Fireplaces, boilers, water heaters, pool-heating equipment, gas-powered tools, barbecues and cooking equipment are the most common types of fossil-fuel-burning equipment found in hotels,” said Todd Seiders, director of risk management at Petra Risk Solutions.
But few hoteliers, Seiders said, are aware of the dangers posed.
“The problem with carbon monoxide is education,” he said. “The hotelier doesn’t know that his hot water heater or boiler that burns fossil fuel can be deadly if not properly ventilated. He has a water heater at home, and how many of us look at the hot water heater as something that can kill you?”
Appalachian Hospitality Management manages the Best Western in Boone. Damon Mallatere, president of the management company, now faces three counts of involuntary manslaughter resulting from the guest deaths, as well as an additional charge of assault for a fourth guest who survived a night in the room that sat directly above the corroded pool heater exhaust pipe.
“Carbon monoxide is a gas, so it’s going to penetrate solids and seep into any open spaces just like cigarette smoke does,” said Stephen Barth, professor of hotel law at the University of Houston and the founder of HospitalityLawyer.com. “The problem is it’s deadly because you can’t see it, taste it or smell it. They call it the silent killer.”
Barth said people haven’t really been aware of how dangerous carbon monoxide is. “But I think they’re becoming aware of it and it’s something they’re diligently trying to address,” he said.
Equipment might be installed properly but then be modified by an in-house maintenance group or a non-professional, and Barth said that’s where some hoteliers might get themselves in trouble.
“It’s just horrible what happened in North Carolina,” Barth said. “But as sad as it is, the criminal aspect of it should create real awareness on the part of innkeepers.”
What can you do?
So what can hoteliers do to ensure similar cases of carbon-monoxide poisoning don’t occur under their roofs?
“Knowledge is one of the key solutions,” Barth said. “If you understand how this happened and why, you can take reasonable steps to prevent it, including proper venting, proper inspection on at least an annual basis, and then, of course, CO alarms.”
Unlike smoke detectors, there is no federal regulation requiring carbon-monoxide detectors in hotels, motels or resorts. However, as new cases of CO poisoning make headlines, more and more states are passing laws making them standard equipment.
Brad Bonnell, VP of loss prevention at Extended Stay America, said local codes will often dictate what is required concerning CO detectors.
“But industry standards are driven by shared intelligence often coming through professional industry organizations such as the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the American Society of Industrial Security,” he said.
The AH&LA’s official stance
is that while it’s not empowered to require hoteliers to install CO detectors, its members are “urged to follow strict CO monitoring and prevention policies.”
Some hoteliers might balk at the costs of installing CO detectors, which run about $100 apiece, but Bonnell said detector installation for a property of less than 130 rooms “probably isn’t going to be cost prohibitive.”
Seiders said hoteliers don’t even need to install an alarm in every room.
“That would be a waste of money, in my opinion,” he said. “I do highly recommend them inside a guestroom if that room is close to a CO source. For example, if the guestroom is near or above the pool equipment room, or the hotel equipment room, then, yes, absolutely a CO detector should be included in that guestroom.”
Hoteliers who install carbon-monoxide detectors could be eligible for a discount on their insurance rates, similar to discounts offered for concrete construction, fire sprinklers and other safety features, sources said. Providers could raise premiums if hotels don’t have them.
Hoteliers who are unsure where to place the carbon monoxide detectors should call the local fire marshal, who will come out and inspect a hotel for free and make recommendations.
“I have seen this done nationally by dozens of our clients with positive results,” Seiders said. “You can’t do better than free, and the fire marshal is an expert, so you’re getting the best info available.”