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Workplace Burn Injury and Workplace Law

Workplace fires and explosions kill 200 and injure more than 5,000 American workers each year, according to OSHA estimates. Not all workplace-related burns result from fires. Thermal burns can also occur from contact with hot objects present in many workplaces, and electrical, radiation, and chemical burns are dangers facing many other American workers, both those out in the field and those inside factories, laboratories, and other workplaces. Burns most often affect respiratory functions (lungs, throat), eyes, and skin.

Work-related burns account for 20%-25% of all serious burns requiring hospital attention. Workplace burn injuries account for about 5% of all workplace deaths. In nonfatal workplace injuries from burns, most damage is done to the skin. Skin is the body’s largest sensory organ and necessary for the regulation of water and warmth. It is also one of the first organs noticed by others. Burned skin and respiratory damage can permanently affect a worker’s quality of life.

If your life has been drastically changed from a workplace burn injury, contact the Consumer Justice Group. Our network of workplace attorneys and medical staff can make sure you receive the financial recoveries necessary to get your life back in order.

Where Workplace Burns Occur, How Burns Injure
Injury risk from workplace burns are present at almost all construction sites and factories and anywhere else high voltage or corrosive chemicals are present. Restaurant and kitchen workers (especially those working with outdated deep fryers), industrial workers, electrical workers/electricians, welders and scrap metal recycling workers, roofers (especially those working with a BUR system with melting kettle), road pavers, and many other workers are at risk for thermal, electrical, and chemical burns.

Thermal workplace burns usually results in skin burns and can come from scalding from hot liquids (such as grease and boiling water), open flames, hot objects, and explosions.
Chemical workplace burns are rarer and often result in a more severe type of burn. Chemical burns can occur when skin or eyes come into contact with strong acids or alkaloids or other corrosive or caustic materials that eat away or “burn” skin and deeper tissue. These can be caused by industrial cleaners used in the workplace (acidic rust removers and cleaning agents, basic drain cleaners, etc.) and various chemicals used in laboratory and manufacturing workplaces.
Electrical workplace burns occur when current travels through the human body and meets resistance in the body’s tissues, resulting in heat burn injuries. Workplace safety laws require dangerous, high voltage areas and machinery to be clearly marked. (For more on electrical workplace burns, read our workplace electrical injury newsletter.)

Burn Severity, The Four Degrees of Workplace Burn Injury
Burns represent damage to any of the skin’s three layers and deeper tissues caused by thermal (including electrical) or chemical damage. The following categories pertain to both thermal and chemical burn injury.

First-degree burns. Damage to outer skin layer (epidermis) causes redness and mild pain. These burns, which include sunburns, heal within 3-5 days.
Second-degree burns. Burn damage extends deeper into the second layer (dermis) to cause blistering in addition to redness. These burns heal within 1-3 weeks.
Third-degree burns. Burn damages all 3 skin layers and causes severe swelling. The area of burn injury can be white, black, red, or brownish. These severe burns are often not painful as nerves are typically severed. Scarring often occurs and burn recovery may require skin grafts.
Fourth-degree burns. The most severe burn, burn damage extends to all skin layers and can damage muscle and bone. Skin grafts do not work to heal these burns. Fourth-degree burn victims require amputation if injury occurs in a limb/extremity.

Additional burn injury can be caused from smoke inhalation. In fact, 60-80% of burn fatalities come from major smoke inhalation. The immediate effects can include fainting, blockages of airways, singed facial and/or nose hair, and burns around the face and neck. Smoke inhalation can also lead to pulmonary (lung) injury. There are also the immediate and long-term dangers from inhaling toxic chemicals such as benzene. Read more in this eMedicine article about burn injuries and smoke inhalation.

Preventing Workplace Burns, An Employer’s Duty
Workplace burns can be prevented and likelihood of serious injury reduced by following a few safety measures and by educating workers on workplace burn hazards.

Workplace fire prevention. OSHA has set basic standards for workplace fire safety. Every indoor workplace must provide two means of escape in case a fire; these doors must be remote from each other, properly marked, and free of obstruction in case a fire emergency blocks access to one door. Additionally, portable fire extinguishers appropriate to the type of workplace burn that might occur (electrical, chemical, or fire) and automatic fire suppression systems must be tested and in working order. For “total flooding” fire suppression systems and systems posing serious health hazards such as carbon dioxide or bromochlorodifluoromethane (Halon 1211), workplace signage must inform workers of dangers and offer a pre-discharge warning. Click for more on OSHA regulations on workplace fire prevention.

Chemical burn prevention. Warnings for these chemicals should be prominently displayed. Fire hazards, reactivity (chance for explosion), radioactivity, and chemical burn hazards can all be found on a label’s NFPA diamond (click here to for a how to read workplace hazards on NFPA diamond).

Immediate Action for Workplace Burns
Whether the workplace burn injury is thermal, chemical, or electrical determines the proper course of action

For thermal burns, the first priority is to stop the burning process. This means one should smother the fire, removing any burning clothes unless these clothes have melted onto the person. The injured worker should be put in a sustainable position that allows him/her to breathe and blood to flow. The burn injury should be covered with a clean, dry fabric. Do not let the burn injury victim eat or drink on the way to the hospital as this might have an effect on painkillers and surgery.

Symptoms of workplace chemical burns include itching or other irritation; whitening, reddening, or darkening of skin; pain or numbness; and/or blistering at the site of contact. If the chemical is inhaled, the worker might feel a shortness of breath or blurred vision if a chemical burns the eyes. Immediate action is needed or the chemical will continue to burn into deeper layers of tissue. Remove any clothing or jewelry the chemical may have contacted and wash away the chemical. Seek immediate medical attention.

Workplace electrical burns require special attention. Make sure to protect yourself when aiding another and only do so when the power is off. For electrical burns, do not apply ice, butter, ointment, or adhesive bandages to the burn injury. Additional information on electrical burns is available in our workplace electrical injury newsletter.

Legal Action for Workplace Burns
Workplace burns can result in catastrophic pain and physical disfigurement. Burn injuries are some of the most expensive and painful injuries an employee can suffer. The average cost for medical bills is almost twice that for any other injury.  Injured workers often need a week or more of hospital care.

In over a quarter of cases, workers injured from burns were wearing proper protective equipment. Whether or not you were provided proper protection, informed of the workplace burn dangers, or were injured by the negligence of a coworker, you employer is responsible for your continued wellbeing. You have a right to money compensation for your injuries. You might have a right to money damages from the manufacturer of the dangerous equipment as well as a workers’ comp claim.


Lawyers for Change.
If your life has been drastically changed from a workplace burn injury, contact the Consumer Justice Group. Our network of workplace attorneys and medical staff can make sure you receive the financial recoveries necessary to get your life back in order.


The Workers' Rights News is a service of the Consumer Justice Group.

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