A chemical burn occurs when living tissue comes into contact with a corrosive substance or irritant such as an acid. These types of burns are also known as caustic burns and produce a reaction within the body or on the skin. They can be very dangerous for workers, as they occur on contact, may not be evident right away, and often cause serious pain. The chemical which the tissue came into contact with typically diffuses into cellular structures and causes damage underneath the skin.
While the exact symptoms vary depending on the substance involved, common symptoms of a chemical burn include:
- A darkening/bleaching/discoloration of the skin
- Itching and redness
- Difficulty breathing
- Development of blisters
- Coughing up blood
- Tissue necrosis (premature death of living tissue cells)
- Pain and swelling
- First-degree burns,which impact the outermost layer of the skin (epidermis) only. A common example is a mild sunburn, and symptoms include dryness, pain, and redness.
- Second-degree burns,which affect both the epidermis and the dermis. This causes pain, swelling, redness, and blisters.
- Third-degree burns.These completely damage the dermis and epidermis and may reach subcutaneous tissue, which is the innermost layer of the skin.
- Fourth-degree burns,which not only impact all three layers but also may reach the bone and muscle. This also damages nerve endings.
Chemical burns can happen in any workplace that involves the handling of chemicals. These worksites include medical, industrial, and agricultural organizations, as well as cleaning companies and pools. Commonly handled hazardous substances that may lead to burns include bleach, ammonia, pesticides, heavy metals, and disinfectants.
Manufacturers of hazardous substances are required to provide Safety Data Sheets (SDS) and warning labels with their products, and employers must ensure that the SDS is available to employees. In accordance with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS), the SDS should list important information such as precautions for use, potential health effects, suggestions for safe storage, and emergency first aid instruction. Warning labels should feature hazard pictograms, precautionary statements, hazard statements, and signal words which will warn workers if, for example, the substance they are handling is corrosive and requires personal protection equipment such as gloves.
By keeping workers informed, adhering to internationally consistent hazard information, and providing thorough training in handling and safety, workplaces can help prevent chemical burns from occurring on site.