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This week (February 5-11, 2023) is National Burn Awareness Week, an event sponsored by the American Burn Association. The theme for this year’s Burn Awareness Week campaign is “Hot Liquids Burn Like Fire!” to highlight the risk and severity of scald burns from hot liquids such as drinks and bathwater as well as steam.

According to the NFPA, scald burns are the second-leading cause of all burn injuries in the US, with children under five being at the greatest risk. Scald burns are also the leading cause of injury related to microwave ovens from spills, steam, and splashes.

Although most burns happen in the home, a significant number of burns happen each year in the workplace. In fact, heat burns are one of the most common types of workplace injuries.

In research laboratories, heat burns are also common as many lab experiments require heat, mostly from open flames and hot surfaces. Heat burns can happen from handling hot items without the proper tools and personal protective equipment (PPE). For instance, handling items being removed from an autoclave without heat-resistant gloves can result in serious burns. In addition to PPE, proper tools such as tongs when handling heated objects should be used, and any direct contact with hot surfaces should be avoided.

Cold burns can also occur in a laboratory setting from materials like dry ice, liquid nitrogen, and other cryogenic materials. Brief contact with materials at extremely low temperatures can cause burns similar to heat burns. Because these materials are extremely cold, they can cause severe cold burns within seconds of direct contact. They should never be handled with bare hands. Insulated/cryogenic gloves should always be worn. For eyes and face protection from cryogenic fluids, a face shield should also be worn.

Chemical burns are also a risk in most laboratories. Many common chemicals such as acids and bases can cause severe eye and skin burns. In addition, many frequently used laboratory cleaning products and disinfectants such as bleach are corrosive and can cause significant burns. To protect against chemical burns, eye protection (safety glasses or goggles, as appropriate) and gloves should always be used when handling corrosive materials. A face shield and/or rubber apron may also be needed, depending on the work performed.

Another consideration for laboratories is that the presence of ultraviolet (UV) sources in some lab equipment (e.g., transilluminators, handheld UV lamps) emit high intensity UV light capable of producing serious eye and skin burns. Exposure resulting in injury can occur in only a few seconds.  Some pieces of equipment that house UV sources are equipped with interlocks or safety shields to prevent exposure. However, when exposure can’t be prevented, UV-rated safety glasses and face shields must be used.

The American Burn Association has put together many resources you can use in your organization to promote Burn Awareness and Prevention Week including fact sheets, posters, and social media posts. The NFPA also has a lot of great material including a scald prevention safety tip sheet and a tip sheet for the use of microwave ovens.  

For additional information on National Burn Awareness Week, or for assistance in putting safety programs in place at your facility to prevent workplace burns, please email us at [email protected].

This blog was written by Beth Graham, Safety Partners Director of Quality, Research, and Training.