Severe & Fatal Burn Injuries in the Workplace

Of the 450,000 or so burn injuries that occur each year in the United States, up to 45% of those burn injuries occur in the workplace (according to some studies and OSHA stats). Obviously the risk of burn injuries aren’t the same from job to job, and some of the obvious at-risk workers including firefighters, food service workers, and electrical technicians, but a wide range of industries have people working with or in close proximity to faulty equipment, electrical systems, toxic chemicals, and fire risks. In this article, we will look at just a few of those jobs where workers are most at risk for burn injuries while taking a look at burn injury risk as a whole in the American workplace.

Types of Burn Injury Risks in the U.S. Workplace

The first terminology we need to set straight is how we talk about the severity of burns. While first-degree burns can be nasty, they are actually the mildest types of burns, with second-degree burns being more severe, and third-degree burns being even more devastating.

  • First-degree burns usually take no longer than a week to heal, like minor frostbite or some sunburn. That said, these should still be taken seriously, especially since repeatedly getting sunburnt can increase a worker’s risk of melanoma, a type of skin cancer.
  • Second-degree burns are very painful, since the top layer of skin is destroyed, but sensory nerves are left intact. While these burns won’t always leave a scar, the skin will often be reddened, blistered, and at risk of getting infected for a long time.
  • Third-degree burns are severe enough to damage nerves, so even though they are more destructive than second-degree burns, these injuries may not be as painful immediately. These full-thickness burns get through both the dermis and epidermis, destroying sensory nerves, hair follicles, and sweat glands. These devastating burns require skin grafts in order to fully heal, though scarring is likely.
  • Fourth-degree burns reach a person’s fat, muscle, and even bone. Otherwise known as char burns or black burns, they can be survivable if the area affected is small enough and prompt, proper medical care is provided, but they will leave the burn victim disfigured. Often the result of electrical burns, these can release toxic materials into the blood. Skin grafts aren’t enough to treat fourth-degree burns; amputation may be required.

As destructive as burn injuries are on their own, they also bring additional, immediate risks. In the hours immediately following a burn injury, shock is also a terrible threat. This is because burn-damaged tissue leaks fluids and salts, and this can eventually be enough to deprive the heart of enough blood to pump, leading to a dangerous drop in blood pressure, leaving the victim pale and confused, and even lead to collapse from fluid loss and damaged tissue. Even once the initial burn damage is done, the shock or swelling of fluid can lead to risks of life-threatening infection and/or organ failure.

These burn injuries typically result from three different sources:

  • Thermal burns
  • Chemical burns
  • Electrical burns

Thermal Burn Risks for Workers

Thermal burns are the most common type of occupational burn injury, and they refer to contact with heat that destroys tissue. Thermal burns often come from liquid scalds; contact burns from hot objects (such as metal, molten plastic, asphalt, adhesives, etc.); steam; or open flames and explosions

Of all thermal burns that take place in the U.S. each year, 20% of thermal burns occurred while on the job, and about 40% of all fatal burn injuries in the U.S. are due to worksite explosions and fires. This means that employees, like firefighters, factory and plant workers, food service workers, construction workers, and coal miners face some of the biggest injury risks due to open flames, flash fires, or explosions, and they often run those risks daily.

Chemical Burn Risks on the Job

Of the nonfatal burn injuries tallied by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in the 2020 workplace, approximately 20% of them were chemical burns. Though chemical burns are not as common as thermal burns, they still affect many lives, and chemical burns that require hospitalization are more likely to have occurred in the workplace than anywhere else. The sources of these chemical burns could be acids, alkalis, or irritants, and this includes contact as well as inhalation injuries.

Some common culprits of chemical burns include:

  • Sulfuric acid (used in manufacturing of explosives, dyes, glue, and more)
  • Hydrochloric acid (such as in fertilizers, dyes, textiles)
  • Silver nitrate (such as in antiseptics)
  • Industrial cleaners
  • Gasoline
  • Lye
  • Paint thinner
  • Pool chlorinators
  • Rust removers
  • Drain and toilet bowl cleaners
  • Lab chemicals

It’s no surprise then that in 2008 to 2010, a study at a hospital found that about 76% of those coming to the ER with chemical burns were industrial workers, 19% farmers, and nearly 5% office workers. More than 60% of those chemical burn injuries were from acid, leaving them with keloids, or raised scar tissue.

Whether it was the result of an accident, malfunctioning equipment, unguarded storage tanks, a leaking or spraying pipe, etc., chemical burns can quickly cause breathing issues, vision issues, blackened or bleached skin with blisters, tissue death, and a whole range of other issues depending on the specifics of the injury.

Electrical Burn Injuries in the Workplace

Whether they’re from sparks, shocks, or full-on electrocution, electrical burns can quickly burn deeper than thermal burns, accounting for a high percentage of catastrophic and fatal injuries. Workers in construction and manufacturing are at a heightened risk for these burn injury risks, as are electricians, electrical appliance techs, powerline workers, and HVAC technicians, to name a few.

The Long-Term Effects of & Liability for Burn Injuries

Not only can burn injury victims be left with a long recovery, chronic pain, scars, and disability, but these injuries often occur under traumatic circumstances, leaving behind mental and emotional distress in their wake. This mental trauma can be severe enough to keep people from returning to their career as well as disrupt their daily life in other ways.

Apart from being both physically and mentally devastating, what all types of burn injuries in the workplace also have in common is that the employer is often to blame. Were it not for company negligence, many of the horrific accidents that have devastated lives and families would never have taken place.

These realities, of physical and emotional distress as well as of company liability, are best explained by those who have experienced these themselves:

8 Jobs with High Risk of Severe or Fatal Burn Injuries

We have already mentioned some of the professions where burn injuries are an occupational hazard, and there are many more we could examine. To give some idea of the wide range of jobs that put workers at risk of being burned, here are just several such hazard-filled occupations.

Some of the jobs at a significant risk for catastrophic burn injuries include:

  1. Aircraft & airport workers: Everyone from pilots to ground crew works with or around fuel and flammable substances, which quickly becomes a recipe for disaster and hospitalization for many of these workers. While these risks can be greater with civilian aircraft than commercial ones, burn injuries in this field across the board tend to be catastrophic and often fatal.
  2. Farm workers & ranchers: Explosions and fires occur with alarming frequency on farms, as a blaze can ignite from a wide variety of sources, and grain, barns, hayfields, and more are highly combustible. Whether it’s a damaged or faultily constructed silo that leads to a grain dust explosion, malfunctioning machinery that sparks, gas lines being damaged by farm equipment, or control fires that simply grow out of control, agricultural workers face a series of fire and explosions risks.
  3. HVAC technicians: In 2020, one of the top five sources of injuries for these techs was burn injuries, which included chemical burns, thermal burns, and electrical burns. HVAC techs run the risk of electrical shock and electrocution when dealing with HVAC systems that need repairs, and they’re working with refrigerants, cleaners, solvents, and all manner of dangerous chemicals. This makes the right gloves, safety glasses, closed-toed shoes, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) an absolute must.
  4. Land rig workers: This involves working long hours around petroleum, natural gas, hydrogen sulfide, and more. Power tools and heavy equipment carry the risks of electrical shocks and electrocution as well. From contact with hot surfaces, chemical spills, steam, and malfunctioning machinery to fire and explosion risks due to welding and cutting around flammable substances, land rig workers are daily running the risks of serious thermal, chemical, and electrical burns.
  5. Offshore oil rig workers: An oil rig platform exposes workers to toxic fumes and other chemical burn risks, as well as the risks of electrical shocks, fire risks around highly flammable fuels, and the potential for explosions. Working offshore only exacerbates these dangers, as delays in getting adequate medical care can make all the difference in whether a burn injury victim survives or not.
  6. Plumbers: Hot water and steam contribute to a high risk of scald burns for plumbers, and the nature of their work heightens the risks from electrical hazards. This is particularly true in homes that are in desperate need of repairs and have extensive water damage, and/or in older homes that don’t have modern temperature controls for hot water.
  7. Steel workers: Any profession that involves welding brings the risks of fire and explosion with it, but the chemicals and gases released in such work can also create the risks of chemical burns as well.
  8. Wind turbine workers: Even though wind energy is meant to be part of sustainable energy’s future, the same old risks of electrical burns still remain. Wind turbine techs face the threats of fires, arc flashes, and electrical shocks as they work with electrical systems, often in remote areas while hundreds of feet up in the air, making quick medical care and a safe retreat from any fire breakouts difficult.

As grim as burn injuries are, and as prevalent as the risks are in the workplace, they’re probably even worse than the data can convey, as many workplaces tend to underreport burn injuries. This is suspected to be true of the self-employed and small businesses as well as employees such as housekeepers, farm workers, and undocumented immigrant in various jobs. Of course, corporations are also well-versed in covering up incidents and downplaying their spotty safety records.

Protecting Workers from Fires, Explosions & More

Whenever a worker in any industry has suffered from burn injuries, the employer likely could have done something to prevent this. Employers owe it to their workers to provide full training and regular follow-ups, as well as clear warnings of hazards. When employers fail in their duty, it’s the workers and their loved ones who pay the price.

Other forms of company negligence that put workers at risk for burn injuries can include:

  • Lacking or failing to maintain fire suppression systems
  • Violation of other safety standards and regulations
  • Failing to properly maintain equipment and machinery
  • Not providing workers with adequate PPE

Even in cases where a company was clearly to blame for a fire, explosion, or other burn injury, the company isn’t likely to admit fault, or even to provide injured workers the compensation they need to move forward after their trauma. It unfortunately can take outside pressure, such as a lawsuit, in order to ensure that an injured worker, or family who has lost a loved one, can get the benefits that they need, while also demanding that changes be made to ensure a safer workplace.

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