Resource Newsletter Logo
October 2013

Surviving a workplace burn

Understand the risks
By Melanie Mesaros

In March, Peter Jon Winchester was working on the sorting line at a Portland frozen food processor. After an hour, he began to feel his right hand get cold and go numb. He called out for help, but no one responded. Thirty minutes later, he was relieved and was allowed to warm up; however, no medical treatment was provided. Winchester, who was wearing gloves, suffered second- and third-degree frostbite burns and ended up losing one fingertip.

"It still feels like little knives are poking me across all my fingers," Winchester said. "Because of the frostbite, my hand is now very susceptible to heat and cold."

Winchester remains on light duty, performing janitorial work and he may not be able to return to the food processing line again.

A severe burn such as frostbite might be one of the most difficult types of workplace accidents from which to recover, said Dr. Joseph Polito, a surgeon at the Legacy Oregon Burn Center in Portland. Polito has front line experience helping the victims through life-changing accidents.

"If you break a bone, you don't see the bone deformity that's there," said Polito. "The skin is how people see us. With scarring, it does leave physical deformities and that can also leave emotional scarring."

Polito works in Oregon's only burn center. Five to 8 percent of the patients seen at te burn center suffered on-the-job injuries. One of the biggest risks to burn patients is infection, and hospital stays can often last months at a time.

"If a person has a 30 percent burn to their body, they are going to be in the hospital for one to one and a half months," said Polito. "They have dressing changes, surgery, but it takes that long for the wound to be closed."

Electrical contacts can be some of the most devastating, according to Polito, who has treated patients for exposure to flames and arc flash injuries, which can expose the skin to 4,000 degrees F for a very short duration.

"In the worst case, electrical contacts can be fatal and people can end up losing parts of their body such as arms or legs," he said.

Chemical burns pose similar concerns, with hydrofluoric acid being among the most hazardous. As the fluoride ion penetrates the skin, it binds with the calcium in blood and can cause people to develop cardiac arrhythemia and suffer heart failure.

"It is very important knowing how it happened and what the source is," he said of the patients who are brought in with burn injuries.

"The thing that kept me doing this is the resiliency of those who are injured," Polito said. "Some people say it affects them when people whisper and point at them. They'd rather have someone just ask them what happened."

In 2010, Oregon OSHA investigated a case in which two workers were applying texture to damaged drywall in a home office. A nearby natural gas water heater ignited the volatile vapors, leaving one of the workers with burns to his hands and arms. The investigation showed the workers were unaware of the product's flammable nature.

"It's important for employers and employees to read the label for the product they are using," said Penny Wolf-McCormick, Oregon OSHA's health enforcement manager in Portland. "Often, it comes down to not recognizing the hazard, especially if they are working with something new."

Polito has also treated severe cases of frostbite involving an exposure to Freon, an air-conditioning coolant, and a contact with a liquid propane line. Frostbite causes tissue to freeze and lose blood flow. The liquid propane exposure is of concern especially for young workers filling tanks without any training or PPE.

"Too often, the hazard isn't recognized, so treatment is delayed," said Wolf-McCormick. "Managers and supervisors should be trained to recognize the symptoms of exposure so they can ask good questions."

For restaurant workers, a scald from hot oil is more severe than from water because it has a higher heat index. The burn can be deeper and more severe and Polito said it's important not to delay any treatment.

Click for full-size

Tips to avoid a workplace burn:

• Read product labels and the Safety Data Sheet to understand the hazards.

• Know what sort of personal protective equipment (PPE) should be used.

• Understand the properties of the chemical being worked with. Is it flammable? Is it caustic or corrosive? Is it reactive?

• If a chemical is flammable, are you using it in an enclosed space? Can you add ventilation? Is there a source of ignition nearby? It doesn't take a lot of a flammable liquid to vaporize in a small space and result in a flash burn.

• If it's corrosive or caustic, eye, face, and hand protection, or even body coverings such as an apron, can minimize or prevent injury in the event of a splash or spill.

• Know what actions to take in the event of an exposure. Is there a working eyewash or emergency shower available?

• Don't wait if there is an exposure. Wash or treat an affected area immediately and seek help.

Full-color PDF version

Full version

If you want to receive the Resource Newsletter, sign up for future issues here.

Reprinting, excerpting, or plagiarizing any part of this publication is fine with us. Please send us a copy of your publication or inform the Resource editor as a courtesy. If you have questions about the information in Resource, please call 503-378-3272.

For general information, technical answers, or information about Oregon OSHA services, please call 503-378-3272 or toll-free within Oregon, 800-922-2689.