A 23-year-old woman suffered second- and third-degree grease burns on the top of her right hand. The accident occurred at home while heating corn oil in a pan. When the grease ignited after reaching its flash point, she quickly moved the pan, inadvertently spilling it on her hand.
Five days after the accident, the victim went to the hospital emergency department where a physician found leathery, numb skin on her hand. The skin was pale white. Because the burn was a full thickness (third-degree) burn, plastic surgery was necessary. The next day skin grafting was performed. The skin healed without infection within one month. Sadly, however, she failed to follow the physician's burn care recommendations and a severe scar developed.Grease burns to the hand represent a serious and preventable hazard. These injuries account for more than 10 percent of all major burns seen in hospital emergency departments. These burns occur when the cook attempts to move a pan with burning cooking oil and inadvertently spills the oil on the hand holding the pan. These burns are usually third-degree because of either high temperatures of the flaming oils or the subsequent ignition of clothing.
Grease burns represent a large economic burden because of medical care costs and lost work. Of the victims who required surgery at one burn center, the average cost of care was more than $7,000.
Researchers say children under age 6 face the greatest risk of grease burns. Children look up and see the fryer or hear the sounds of the cooking and pull the fryer's electrical cord to get a better look. It does not take much to pull the fryer off the counter or table top and onto the child.
While more children are burned by scalding water than grease, experts say grease burns are more serious. Grease has a higher boiling point than water - meaning you can get it hotter than water. It is also thicker than water. Grease is stickier than water and does not evaporate. It is difficult to get hot grease off the skin.
Grease burns tend to be deeper than burns caused by scalding water. They produce wounds that are easily infected. The burns generally are long-lasting and cause disfiguring and debilitating injuries requiring extensive treatment and rehabilitation.
In case of grease or pan fire:
- If the fire is not brought under control immediately, get yourself and your family out and call the fire department at 911.
- Turn off the stove or other source of cooking heat and smother flames with a close-fitting pot lid or larger pan, if possible.
- Use of an approved portable fire extinguisher is optional depending on the user's ability and knowledge.
- Never throw water or use flour on a grease fire.
- In case of an oven fire, close the oven door and turn off the oven.
- Never touch or attempt to carry a flaming pot. The contents may spill, burn you and spread the fire.
If burned, cool the first- and second-degree burned areas with cool running water for a minimum of 10 minutes. This will lower the victim's skin temperature, which stops the burning process, numbs the pain and prevents or reduces swelling. Do not use ice or very cold water. Third-degree burns require immediate medical attention. Cool them only with wet sterile dressing until medical attention is received.
Because grease burns result largely from a lack of consumer education, cooking pans and especially deep fryers should provide detailed warning labels that inform the user of the dangers of cooking with hot grease. Currently, such warning labels are not found on most such products. The cooking oils themselves need detailed, easily readable warning labels. Domestic cooking oils have such labels but imported oils do not.
Alton Thygerson, professor of health sciences at Brigham Young University, is the National Safety Council's first aid and CPR author and technical consultant. For more information, the new National Safety Council First Aid Handbook by Alton Thygerson is available in local bookstores.