A burn is one of the most common types of injuries that can result from fire exposure. According to the American Burn Association, an estimated 486,000 burn injuries that require medical treatment occur each year.
Construction workers and those working in other labor trades are at an increased risk of receiving burn injuries while on the job because of the machinery and equipment required to perform their daily tasks. Construction and labor trade duties may expose workers to open flame or fire, electrical shock or electrocution, gas line explosions, chemical explosions, welding accidents and exposure to hot liquids or surfaces that can cause burn injuries.
Workers may suffer burn injuries from various methods, including:
- Thermal factors such as open flame, radiation or extreme heat from steam, hot liquids, objects or surfaces.
- Chemical factors such as acids, bases or caustics.
- Electrical factors such as electric current and lightning.
- Light factors such as intense light exposure or ultraviolet light, like sunlight.
- Radiation such as exposure to nuclear sources (ultraviolet light may also cause radiation burns).
Types of Burn Injuries
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rates burn injuries on a scale from first to fourth-degree burns.
- First degree - These burns are on the top layer of skin, and affected areas are characterized by red color, painful to touch and mild swelling. Sunburns are an example of first-degree burns.
- Second degree - These burns involve the first two layers of skin, and affected areas are characterized by deep reddening of the skin, blisters, pain, possible loss of some skin and may have a glossy appearance from leaking fluid.
- Third degree - These burns involve the penetration of all skin layers and result in the permanent loss of tissue. Affected areas will have a loss of skin, the individual may not experience pain except for patches of first- and second-degree burns, which often surround third-degree burns, and skin will appear dry and leathery and may have charred or patches that appear white, brown or black.
- Fourth degree - These burns are the highest level of burns and have the potential to be life-threatening. The burns are characterized by a severe and deep injury that affects all layers of the skin, muscles, tendons and bones.
Additional Occupational Injury Concerns
In addition to burn injuries, the smoke released by open flames and fire can also lead to injury. According to the New York Department of Health, smoke contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and particulate matter (soot), as well as various toxic chemicals depending on the source of the fire. Workers exposed to fire may be at risk of smoke inhalation, which can have immediate effects such as irritation to the eyes, nose and throat and may cause temporary changes in lung function, making breathing difficult. Breathing in carbon monoxide can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, which may be fatal. Breathing in fine particles can irritate the respiratory system, cause shortness of breath, and may exacerbate conditions such as asthma and heart disease.
Best Practices for Fire and Burn Injury Prevention on the Job
With proper prevention and best practices in place, dangerous fires and injuries can be avoided on job sites. Before construction begins on a job site, a fire prevention and extinguishing plan should be created and overseen by an owner, project manager, construction site manager, contractor or a combination of these individuals. The plan should assign responsibilities and lay out steps to be taken in the instance of “imminent danger”-type situations before work begins.
In this plan, management should designate an individual to walk the job site and inspect for fire-related hazards. According to the National Safety Council, the individual conducting fire prevention inspection should be competent in hazard identification and the corrective measures required for the elimination or control of all hazards noted. They should write down the findings of the inspection, including an inspection report, and this should be given to the head of project management.
While it may not be possible to remove all hazards on a construction site that could cause a fire, site safety managers and employers can be proactive in eliminating unnecessary risks. These measures include:
- Having a fire extinguisher in individual work areas and making sure that workers are trained on how to use them. Workers should be trained in the four classifications of fire, the type of extinguishers suitable for each class, and the proper technique to be used in operating each type. Extinguisher suppliers or the local fire department may be willing to provide, or assist in, this training
- Maintaining equipment and replacing any faulty tools or machinery as needed.
- Ensuring all electrical work complies with fire and building safety codes.
- Storing all combustible or highly flammable materials away from active worksites.
- Keeping the worksite free of debris.
- Replacing flammable materials with flame-retardant products when possible.
- Strictly enforcing no smoking or open flame policies on or around job sites.
- Reducing the number of space heaters in high-risk areas of the worksite.
In addition to having a plan in place to identify and mitigate risks on job sites, it is crucial that workers be trained in emergency procedures should a fire or burn injury occur. All workers should be aware of the procedure for reporting a fire and evacuating the work site. It is advised that management display these procedures in areas that are highly visible to the workers. Management should also, ensure workers are familiar with exits and posted evacuation plans, provide numbers to call in case of emergency and confirm that all fire exits are unlocked and clear of debris.
All construction sites should be equipped with an alarm system that can alert the workers if a fire occurs. There should be a designated meeting spot where workers should go outside of the worksite and safely away from danger. After evacuating, workers should call the fire department, tell them the address and not hang up until they are told to do so by emergency personnel. Workers should be advised never to go back into a burning building to look for missing people, property, etc., and should wait for firefighters and emergency services to arrive.
Steps to Take if A Burn or Fire-Related Injury Occurs
If a worker suffers a burn injury, it is important to take immediate action to administer first aid. What is done within the first few minutes after the burn occurs can make a drastic difference in the severity of the injury. According to the CDC, if an individual is involved in a fire-related accident and the fire catches on their clothes or skin, it is important to immediately “Stop, Drop, and Roll” to smother the flames. Workers should help the individual remove all the burned clothing. If the clothing is stuck to the skin, cut or tear around the burned area. Remove all jewelry, belts, tight clothing, etc., from the burned areas and from around the worker’s neck. This is a crucial step to take as burned areas swell immediately.
In the instance of burn or fire-related injury, it is important that the injured individual seek immediate medical attention. Even if the worker initially feels fine, they may be experiencing shock, so it’s always best practice to have their injury evaluated by a medical professional who can provide advice and treatments. If left untreated, burn injuries can become infected and may require intensive care.
Following an injury, a worker can file a workers’ compensation claim. In some states, such as New York, workers typically cannot sue their employers to recover losses. However, many can recover costs of medical bills, lost wages, total and partial disability and wrongful death benefits through a workers’ compensation claim.
If the injury occurs as the result of a third party’s negligence, outside of an employer, a worker may wish to pursue a personal injury lawsuit to recover damages associated with the condition sustained. Damages awarded in personal injury claims are provided to make victims "whole” and can include compensation for medical expenses, lost income, future wages or diminished earning potential, pain and suffering, as well as mental anguish, quality of life loss, and other emotional injuries. Workers looking to pursue this legal action may wish to consult a personal injury lawyer experienced in these legal actions who can review the details of the matter and advise them of their legal rights and remedies.