The most common types of burn injuries in the workplace occur as a result of accidental misuse or clumsy handling of thermal, chemical or electrical sources. The Health and Safety Executive provides outline information on burns and scalding, especially in health and social care settings, including risks from hot water and hot surfaces. Many serious accidents at work that result in burns can be avoided with the proper diligence and preparation. Employers can be fined heavily if these injuries result from unsafe work practices, including employees not having the correct protective clothing suitable for their work.
Risk assessment and burns prevention
Employers can protect their employees and themselves by undertaking a thorough risk assessment to prevent burns occurring. Consider which areas may be most dangerous and conduct regular checks to ensure that safety measures are in place. For example, if there is a kitchen area in the workplace, ensure that you check hobs, kettles and microwave ovens regularly and ensure that safety certifications are all up to date.
- Make sure that all employees know where first aid kits are located and how to use them
- Place a fire extinguisher in or near the kitchen area and elsewhere on the premises if appropriate
- Test smoke detectors every month and replace them after ten years
- If hot water is used in kitchen or toilet facilities, ensure that it does not exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius)
- Where practicable, use electrical outlet covers and keep matches and lighters locked away
- Regularly check electrical cables and safely discard those that have exposed wires
- Store chemicals in a safe place and keep them out of reach when not in use
- Ensure that all employees wear protective gear such as gloves when handling chemicals
- If employees are permitted to smoke, make sure that they only do so in a designated safe zone and all smoking materials are completely extinguished
- If employees work outdoors, encourage them to wear sunscreen and appropriate clothing
Whether a burn is caused by chemicals, heat or electrical equipment is irrelevant when it comes to assessing the degree of the burn. It is important to know the difference in severity between degrees of burns to determine the seriousness of an injury in an emergency.
- A first-degree burn is one which causes the skin to redden but no blistering is apparent
- A second-degree burn is one in which there is blistering and some thickening of the skin
- A third-degree burn is even more serious and causes blistering, thickening of the skin over a wide area and an appearance of being white and leathery
- A fourth-degree burn has all the same symptoms of third-degree burns and additional damage to bones and tendons
It is important to remember that scalding liquid, flames, fire and the sun can cause burns as well as chemical, electrical and thermal sources. In particular, burns that are chemical or electrical in nature should be treated immediately as they are more likely to cause internal damage, no matter how minor the external damage may appear.
Normally, minimal damage to the skin is caused by a first-degree burn and it is relatively superficial. You might experience:
- Pain and redness
- Some minor swelling or inflammation
- Excessively dry skin that peels as the burn heals
First-degree burns usually heal within seven to ten days as only the top layer of skin is affected. It is unusual for these burns to leave a scar. However, it is important to see a doctor if the burn covers an area of skin larger than three inches, and if it occurs on your face or above a joint, such as:
You can normally treat first-degree burns yourself. If the burns are tackled promptly, you will quicken the time that they take to heal. Avoid treating burns with homespun remedies such as ice, eggs or butter as these are not considered effective and may in fact make the damage from burns worse. Preferred and proven treatments include:
- Using cold water to soak the wound for at least five minutes, preferably longer
- Use a specialist burn soothing product to relieve the pain
- Relieving pain with ibuprofen or acetaminophen
- Soothing skin with a gel or cream that has anaesthetic properties, such as aloe vera
- Protecting the wound with an antibiotic ointment and loose dressing such as gauze (not cotton wool, the fibres of which will stick, increasing your risk of infection)
Second-degree burns are more serious. Blisters are formed and become extremely sore and very red. Occasionally, these blisters will burst and liquid will seep out. You may develop additional tissue over the wound that is soft and thick, similar to a scab.
It is extremely important to keep the area around the wound as well as the wound itself very clean by using appropriate bandages, which will also aid the healing process. It may take three weeks or more for second-degree burns to heal, and there may well be changes to skin pigment.
As with first-degree burns, the location of the wound is important. If blistering is severe, skin grafting may be necessary to aid healing.
It might be imagined that third-degree burns are the most painful; however, this may not be the case if nerve damage has occurred. Symptoms for third-degree burns include:
- Blisters that do not develop
- Skin colours on the affected area may change to white, dark brown or black
- Skin textures on the affected area may be waxy or leathery and raised
Treatment of third-degree burns should never be attempted at home or in the workplace. It is important to get immediate medical help and to keep the burn elevated so that it is above your heart. Check that no clothing is stuck to the wound; however, don’t attempt to undress. Surgery is necessary to prevent severe scarring and tissue hardening (contracture). Recovery time is difficult to predict as it depends on the severity of the wound. As with first and second-degree burns, the location of the wound is important.
Finally, all burns carry the risk of infection, and third-degree burns may also cause shock and blood loss. Further complications include the risk of tetanus, excessive loss of body heat causing hypothermia, and excessive blood loss causing hypovolemia. Surgery, physiotherapy and rehabilitation can all help to aid recovery.