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Heat burns sustained in the workplace.

Heat burns sustained in the workplace Martin E. Personick

The notion of bums, to some, might evoke images of shooting flames, blaring sirens, and firefighters battling against intense heat. Though less dramatic, many other employees face the specter of heat bum hazards in their daily tasks, including the welder working with molten metal and the roofer pouring hot tar. Whatever the activity, though, contact with hot objects or substances can result in severe bums requiring medical treatment (occasionally even hospital stays) and long periods of recuperation.

As part of its ongoing concern with job-related heat burns, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requested a special Bureau of Labor Statistics study that focused on the characteristics of workers and their heat bum injuries as well as on the factors surrounding such incidents. In response, BLS and 23 participating State agencies identified about 1,300 heat bum cases filed as workers' compensation claims in May 1985, the reference month selected for this special study. This summary highlights the study's major findings.

Of primary interest to OSHA were survey questions relating to the use and effectiveness of personal protective equipment. The study found that most of the injured were wearing some type of safety gear at the time of their accident, but that the burn area-mostly the upper or lower extremities-typically was not covered by personal protective equipment. Asked why the bum area was unprotected, the injured commonly thought that a full complement of protective gear was not needed or that employers did not provide all of the proper gear to protect against heat bums.

Even more revealing were responses from those whose bum area was covered, a group making up one-fourth of the study's injured. A large majority said that the source of their bum (usually molten metal, flames, or tar) went under or around the gear-mostly shoes or gloves. The responses of most of the remainder of this group indicated that heat penetrated or burned through the protective gear. Many of these injured sensed, however, that the protective gear helped to reduce the area burned or its seriousness.

These findings are useful to OSHA in evaluating the adequacy of and compliance with its current safety standards relating to personal protective equipment. For example, OSHA might initiate research to evaluate certain design features of safety gloves, shoes, and boots, such as the size and fit of the gear and their heat-resistant properties. (See table I for the incidence of wearing specific safety gear and the worker's perception of its protective properties.)

How severe were the bums sustained by workers in this study? Third-degree bums, which destroy all layers of the affected skin, were reported by a little more than two-fifths of the injured. In addition, a similar proportion reported second-degree burns, resulting in blistered skin which, unlike third-degree bums, will regenerate but with varying amounts of scarring.

Besides degree of bum, two other measures-lost workdays and overnight hospital stays-help gauge the severity of injury. In this regard, slightly more than seven-tenths of the injured workers experienced lost worktime, an average (median) of 10 workdays off beyond the day of injury. And, a hospital stay, averaging 6 nights, was reported by one-sixth of those sustaining heat bums. Of course, most workers hospitalized overnight were burned extensively, typically on the upper extremeties and either the trunk or head.

Although the injured were comparatively young three-fifths were under age 35), job experience does not appear to have been a major factor contributing to these heat bum cases. Two-thirds of the injured had been with their employer at least I year at the time of the accident; almost two-fifths had worked with their employer for 5 years or more. Also, most of the workers said they performed almost daily an activity similar to that associated with their accident.

In recounting the case, the injured worker's description of the bum accident covered a wide variety of activities. Almost two-thirds said that they were operating, maintaining, or servicing equipment, tools, or vehicles. Additionally, nearly three-tenths sustained bums while pouring or lifting hot liquids or substances, primarily tar or molten metal. At the time of the accident, the most widely used equipment or materials were welding apparatus; tar or asphalt; vehicles and parts; cleaning or sterilizing equipment; and furnaces, heaters, or stoves.

Injured workers were about evenly divided about whether they thought worksite conditions contributed to their accident (table 1). Those who believed so cited a number of factors, such as the poor quality or wrong type of tools and equipment, lack of proper labeling, and confined or cluttered work areas (that is, areas around pipes, under vehicles, and rooftops).

As with most industrial accidents, a large majority of the respondents to the heat bum study believed their accident could have been averted. When asked to suggest preventive actions, the workers cited several ways, such as using safer work procedures and wearing proper safety gear. (Questions relating to the circumstances surrounding these injuries and what could have prevented these accidents were posed to the injured employee only, not to the employer.)

A COMPREHENSIVE REPORT, Heat Burn Injuries, Bulletin 2358, may be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, or from the Bureau of labor Statistics, Publications Sales Center, P.O. Box 2145, Chicago, IL 60690. The bulletin provides detailed information on the characteristics associated with heat bum injuries. 11 Footnotes

The scope of this private industry study was limited in the following ways: Excluded were workers in coal, metal, and nonmetallic mining; fire fighting and related fire prevention occupations; food preparation and related occupations, such as cooks and waitresses; motor vehicle and equipment accidents; assaults; and fatalities. Moreover, only workers who were directly involved with the object or substance that burned them, caught fire, or exploded were included.

Certain basic information about the worker, such as sex and age, and the injury, such as part of body affected, was obtained from State workers' compensation reports filed by employers. Detailed descriptions of the accidents, the availability and use of personal protective equipment, and related information were developed from the workers' responses to the questionnaire. Several OSHA offices, as well as the Office of Safety Research of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, contributed to the planning of the survey and, in particular, to the design of its questionnaire.

See General Industry: OSHA Safety and Health Standards (29 CFR 1910), OSHA 2206 Occupational Safety and Health Administration, revised 1981), pp. 292-98.
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Title Annotation:Research summaries
Author:Personick, Martin E.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Jul 1, 1990
Previous Article:Raising the minimum wage: effects on family poverty.
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