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Know how to treat a choking incident

Source: NSC first aid course

A choking incident can occur anywhere – including the weekly staff meeting or at someone’s desk. If you saw a co-worker choking, would you be ready to help?

The universally understood sign for choking is when someone clutches their hands to their throat. However, if you suspect someone is choking and they’re not giving this sign, Mayo Clinic recommends checking for these issues:

  • Inability to speak
  • Problems breathing or breathing noisily
  • Inability to cough forcefully
  • Skin, lips and nails turn are turning blue or dusky
  • Loss of consciousness

If you encounter someone displaying any of these signs, move fast. “An airway obstruction is a life-threatening emergency because the victim is not getting oxygen,” the National Safety Council states. If your workplace has an emergency response team, have someone alert them that assistance is needed. (Read more about workplace emergency response teams from OSHA.)

From the "Basic Life Support" course offered by the National Safety Council. Learn more about NSC first aid and CPR training – including online and classroom training for learners, and courses and materials for instructors. © 2015 National Safety Council

If the person is able to cough forcefully, encourage him or her to continue doing so to clear the food or object. But if the person can’t cough, speak or breathe, immediate help is warranted. First, ask the person if he or she is choking. If he or she nods yes, ask for permission to help, and explain that you’ll be administrating abdominal thrusts – also known as the Heimlich maneuver. Follow these steps to perform abdominal thrusts:

  • Stand behind the choking person and place one leg between the victim’s legs.
  • Reach around the abdomen and find the navel. Then, place the thumb-side of your fist against the abdomen, just above the navel.
  • Grasp your fist with your other hand and thrust inward and upward into the person’s abdomen with quick, jerking motions. (If the choking person is pregnant or if you can’t get your arms around him or her, provide chest thrusts from behind and avoid squeezing the choking person’s ribs with your arms.)
  • Continue to perform thrusts until the person expels the object or becomes unresponsive.
  • Seek medical attention, even after choking stops.

Note: If a rescuer is alone with a conscious victim who is choking, the rescuer should continue to provide care until the object is expelled or the victim loses consciousness. If the person loses consciousness, the rescuer should ensure that 911 has been called. (If no one else is around to call, the rescuer should quickly make the 911 call themselves.)


If a choking victim becomes unresponsive, NSC says to lower the person to the ground, expose their chest and begin performing CPR. First, check inside the person’s mouth for objects, and remove anything you find. Then you should:

  • Place one hand on top of the other in the center of the chest.
  • Compress the chest about 2 inches deep, 30 times, at a rate of at least 100 per minute while counting aloud.
  • Tilt the head and lift the chin to open the airway.
  • Give two rescue breaths, each lasting 1 second. (Look in the mouth each time you open it to give breaths, and remove any object you see.)
  • Continue the cycle of two breaths and 30 compressions until the victim regains consciousness, an AED is brought to the scene or professional help arrives.

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