Preventing and Treating Chemical Burns in the Workplace: Essential PPE and Safety Protocols
Chemicals are widely used across numerous industries but can cause serious harm if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. Certain chemicals, including gasoline and lye, can even cause burns on the eyes, skin, mouth, or even internal organs. In severe cases, chemical burns can lead to death and disfigurement.
In this article, we highlight important things to know about work-related chemical burns, including which industries commonly work with chemicals that pose a burn risk, the most common causes of chemical burns, burn symptoms and treatment, and the type of personal protective equipment (PPE) and/or safety measures needed to keep workers safe.
Chemical Burns in the Workplace: Latest Facts and Figures
Chemical burns, also called caustic burns, are a type of injury caused by contact with a corrosive substance or chemical. Current research suggests that chemical burns are fairly common in the workplace, especially among young male workers.
According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a total of 16,550 nonfatal burns occurred in the workplace in 2020. Of these, at least 3,540 were related to chemical burns or corrosions (e.g., ingesting a corrosive agent).
The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified the workplace as the most common place for burns to occur, in addition to the home.
Common Causes of Work-Related Chemical Burns
Chemical burns occur when part of a person's body, such as their skin or eyes, comes in contact with a caustic or corrosive substance, including acids (pH less than 7), alkalis (pH greater than 7), solvents, and irritants. Some specific chemicals that may cause burns include:
- Sulfuric acid
- Nitric acid
- Hydrofluoric acid
- Phosphoric acid
- Sodium hydroxide (lye)
- Sodium carbonate
- Lithium hydride
- White phosphorus
- Concrete mix
- Battery acid
- Toilet bowl cleaners or drain cleaners
- Pool chlorinators
These chemicals have a wide variety of purposes and uses, from detergents to goods production. 2020 data from BLS indicates that some of the most common industries associated with employee chemical burns include manufacturing, construction, mining, agriculture, specialty trade contractors, plumbing and heating, animal slaughtering and production, waste management and remediation, healthcare, amusement and recreation industries, and food services.
Symptoms of Chemical Burns
The most common signs and symptoms of chemical burns include:
- Redness, pain, numbness, and/or burning in the affected area
- Blisters or black dead skin in the affected area
- Problems with vision (if the chemical gets into a person's eyes)
It's important to know that a chemical burn may appear small and seemingly minor even though there could be severe deep tissue damage below the surface. Always seek medical attention if you are unsure about the extent of the injury, or how to treat it.
Chemical Burn Treatment and First Aid
According to sources like Mayo Clinic and the World Health Organization, basic first aid techniques for chemical burns may involve slightly different techniques than thermal burns, and include the following:
- Irrigate (flush) the affected area with large volumes of cool running water—ideally, for at least 10 to 20 minutes, and again for at least a few minutes if a burning sensation continues after completing the initial flush
- While flushing the injured area, remove any clothing or jewelry that has also been contaminated by the caustic chemical
- After thoroughly rinsing the burned area, wrap it loosely with a clean cloth or, if available, a dry sterile dressing
The World Health Organization also shares some important things to NOT do when providing first aid for chemical burns and other types of burns:
- Do NOT begin first aid before ensuring the scene is safe (e.g., watch for spills, shut off any electrical currents, don gloves and chemical-resistant PPE)
- Do NOT apply ice, oils, salves, raw cotton, pastes, or any type of home remedy to the burn
- Do NOT open any blisters
- Do NOT expose the burn to very cold water or prolonged cooling, due to the risk of hypothermia
Important note: While thoroughly washing the affected area with cool water is recommended for most chemical burns, a water rinse may actually make some chemical burns worse, including burns caused by carbolic acid or phenol (which should be first flushed with alcohol to remove the chemicals from the skin prior to washing with water).
If you are not sure whether it is safe to proceed with a water rinse, or if you are not sure how to treat the chemical burn, call Poison Control immediately and have the chemical's container or Safety Data Sheet handy. This way, you can tell the Poison Control staff member what information is on the chemical's contents label.
When Should I Seek Medical Care for a Chemical Burn?
Small, superficial burns can be managed with over-the-counter pain relievers, topical ointments, and dressings. These minor burns usually heal quite well. However, you should get yourself to an emergency room immediately if you have signs and symptoms of a more serious burn, such as
- A burn that is bigger than three inches wide and/or long (about the length of an average adult thumb)
- A burn that is on the face, hands, feet, groin, or buttocks
- A burn that is located over a major joint, like the shoulder or knee
- A burn that causes pain that can't be controlled with over-the-counter pain medication
- Additional symptoms of shock (e.g., dizziness, low blood pressure, and shallow breathing)
When going to the hospital for chemical burn treatment, be sure to bring any information you have about the chemical that caused the burn (e.g., bring the container with you). Depending on the severity, location, and type of burn, medical providers may give topical, oral, and/or intravenous (IV) antibiotics, fluids, and other medications. If necessary, the medical team may also recommend:
- Irrigation and debridement (I&D), in which the burned area is thoroughly cleansed, and any dead tissue or debris is removed
- Skin grafting, is a surgical procedure in which healthy skin from another part of the injured person's body is attached to the burn wound
Severe burns may require additional life-saving measures, including mechanical ventilation or other types of surgical interventions.
What PPE Helps Prevent Chemical Burns?
Chemical burns are a relatively frequent yet preventable occupational injury, especially when workers are provided with appropriate chemical resistant PPE that protects against chemical splashes. Options include:
- Hooded chemical-resistant clothing
- Boot and shoe covers
- Goggles and/or face shields
All PPE used to prevent chemical burns should be high quality, durable, and easy to wear without disrupting worker movement and productivity. Disposable PPE is a great option for chemical protection because it reduces the risk of cross-contamination and avoids the need to clean garments.
All workers who may come in contact with caustic chemicals during their daily tasks should be trained on how to properly don and doff their PPE, how to reduce the risk of splashes or spills, how to identify and use different chemicals appropriately, and how to provide basic first aid. Organizations should also ensure that spaces are well-ventilated wherever chemicals are in use and ensure that all chemicals are stored securely in their original containers.
Work-related chemical burns are preventable injuries that can cause pain, disability, disfigurement, vision loss, limb loss, or even death. If your organization needs dependable and affordable solutions to protect your workforce from burns on the job, contact International Enviroguard at 1-800-345-5972 to speak with a member of our team today.