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A burn injury causes damage to the body’s skin, and possibly to tissues beneath the skin. Burns are often associated with heat or flames, but chemicals can cause burns as well. Chemical burns result from a caustic agent contacting the skin.

Most chemicals that cause burns are either strong acids or bases. Acids are the most causative agents, and the most common burns happen on the face, arms and legs. Examples of chemicals that can cause burns are vehicle battery acid, bleach, drain cleaner, paint thinner, gasoline, ammonia, chlorination products and cement.

Chemical burns typically happen by accident, and appropriate procedures and employee training can help prevent them.

Preventing chemical burns

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to provide information about the identities and hazards of chemicals available to workers. This includes communicating the appropriate measures to protect employees, such as personal protective equipment, or PPE, that should be worn when using certain chemicals.

Storing chemicals properly and safely provides another important step in preventing chemical burns. Chemicals should be kept in their original containers with labels. The OSHA Hazard Communication Standard also requires employers to make Safety Data Sheets available to exposed workers for each hazardous chemical. These sheets contain 16 sections. Those focusing on injury prevention are

  • chemical identification,
  • hazard identification,
  • information on ingredients,
  • instructions on handling and storage,
  • physical and chemical properties,
  • stability and reactivity, and
  • exposure controls, which includes PPE.

First aid

A chemical burn is considered a deep injury when it covers an area larger than 3 inches in diameter, or covers the hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks or a major joint. In this case, immediate medical care is needed. Section 4 of the Safety Data Sheet, First Aid Measures, spells out best practices for administering first aid, depending on the chemical being used.

In most cases, whether the burn is minor or serious, the chemical agent that caused it should be flushed off the skin with large amounts of cool, gently running water for at least 10 minutes. The person administering the first aid should be mindful to use appropriate PPE when flushing the chemical. Any piece of clothing or jewelry should be flushed with water before removing it from the injured person. For serious burns, follow-up professional medical care is necessary.

Types of chemical burns

The classification of a burn depends on how the burn occurs, how long the skin is in contact with the chemical, whether the skin had open cuts or wounds, the location of the contact, the amount and strength of the chemical used and whether the chemical was a gas, liquid or solid.

Burns have these categories:

  • First degree – a mild burn injury of the outermost layer of the skin
  • Second degree – a burn that affects the outermost layer of skin and extend to the middle skin layer
  • Third degree – a burn that destroys the outer layer of skin and the entire layer of skin beneath

Most chemical burns can be treated without causing long-term problems. Some burns, however, can be more serious and require more substantial treatment. Having procedures in place, conducting proper employee training and wearing the right protective clothing will help in the prevention of chemical burns.