Following the on-the-job death of a Legal Sea Foods unit manager in Long Island late last month, you can expect the presence of carbon monoxide (CO) detectors to become a point of emphasis for many restaurant operators. 

Right now, laws that require CO detectors vary from city to city and state to state and primarily target residential installations, not businesses. But in the wake of the acute CO poisoning of 55-year-old Steve Nelson and the hospitalization of two dozen others—primarily Legal Sea Foods employees but also three first responders—expect safety officials, regulators and insurance carriers to explore the idea of making CO detectors mandatory.

They’ll be going in at all 31 Legal Sea Foods restaurants now. Its unit in Huntington Station, NY, did not have CO detectors in place, but not out of neglect. Neither New York state law nor local codes required them. An annual inspection by the town’s fire marshall—the next one for Legal Sea Foods was scheduled for late March—was considered enough.

It wasn’t. 

"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. This includes not only ensuring that we meet local codes as we did in Huntington, but putting a plan in place to exceed them in order to safeguard everyone," Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz said in a written statement. "Stronger safety measures must be put in place, and I pledge to be at the forefront of this effort."

The CO leak at Legal Sea Foods Long Island unit was traced to a faulty flue pipe in the building’s water heating system, located in the basement. Let’s face it. Not many restaurant managers would know enough about potential CO hazards to recognize one like this if they saw it, and even fewer would prowl around their operation’s plumbing system to check potential trouble spots out. It’s something they’d expect their insurance company or landlord or local fire inspector to do.

So that’s the basement plumbing problem. What about kitchens? 

Here’s what has to say about hazards there:

“Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that is given off when something is burned. Commercial fryers come with a special vent to help divert the poisonous gas to the vent hood. But if the vent hood or fryer exhaust is not functioning properly, carbon monoxide can quickly fill up the entire kitchen. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include: headaches, nausea, weakness and dizziness. People that are exposed to carbon monoxide for long periods of time can lose consciousness or even die.”

The unfortunate Legal Sea Foods incident confirms that the “or even die” part of this statement is no exaggeration.

Restaurant operators worry about a myriad of things in their jobs; the threat of a carbon monoxide incident is probably lowest on the list. Nevertheless, paying for the installation of a CO detector in your restaurant could be cheap insurance. An alarm doesn’t cost very much, especially when compared with the dollars that could be involved with employee and/or customer lawsuits, lost productivity, business interruption losses and massively harmful public relations.