Diagnosing, Treating, and Getting Compensation for Burns at Work

According to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), each year more than 5,000 workers are hospitalized after getting burned at work, and approximately 200 of those burn injuries are fatal. Burns can be among the most serious of all workplace injuries.

Common Workplace Burn Injuries

Chemical Burns
A chemical burn occurs when a synthetic, corrosive substance comes in contact with soft tissue. Soft tissues include skin, eyes, ears, and internal organs. The main types of corrosive compounds are acids, bases, oxidizers, solvents, thinning agents, and alkylating agents.

Electrical Burns
An electrical burn is a result of contact with either alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC). Electrical burns occur from touching a functioning electrical socket or wire, falling into electrified water, or being struck by lightning.

Thermal Burns
A thermal burn is caused from contact with a flame, steam, or boiling water (or other boiling liquid). Thermal burns can also occur from touching hot, solid objects such as pipes, tools, engines, and motors. Extended exposure to the sun can cause thermal radiation burns, more commonly known as sunburn.

Depending on the type and severity, burns at work can result in extensive skin damage, internal injuries, and complications including shock, infection, and cardiac arrest. Burn injuries can have long-term effects requiring ongoing medical treatment, rehabilitation, and mental health counseling. Workers with a serious burn can miss substantial time from work, and even be partially or totally disabled.

Burn Ratings

Chemical, electrical, and thermal burns are rated according to their severity. They’re classified as first, second, third, and fourth degree.

  • A first degree burn affects only the outer layer of skin, called the epidermis. This is the least serious burn, and generally results in redness, pain, and general discomfort. Bandages, antiseptic ointments, and topical analgesics are usually enough to treat a first degree burn.
  • A second degree burn is similar but more serious than a first degree burn. It affects both the epidermis and the second layer of skin (dermis), and causes redness, pain, and general discomfort. This type of burn often results in blisters and possibly some scarring.
  • A third degree burn extends into the fatty layer beneath the dermis. Third degree burns can penetrate deep enough to destroy nerves. They often result in waxy, white, or leathery skin. These burns can be extremely painful. In addition to medical care, they normally require pain management with narcotic pain medication.
  • A fourth degree burn is the most serious of all burn injuries. This type of burn penetrates deeply beneath the skin, causing nerve damage and charred muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones. Fourth degree burns are often fatal.

Workers’ Compensation for Burns at Work

Employees who are burned at work are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Workers’ comp includes payment of medical and therapy bills, out-of-pocket expenses (medications, bandages, etc.), and about two-thirds of lost wages.

The workers’ compensation process begins when you file a “first report of injury” (DWC-1) form with your employer. You enter the date, time, and cause of your injury on the form. If your burns are serious enough to require emergency room care, you can wait until you’re stabilized before completing the report.

When your employer gives you a list of company-approved physicians, you choose one as your primary treating physician. Depending on the severity of your burns, your doctor may refer you to a dermatologist, burn center, pain management facility, or plastic surgeon (if necessary).

Your primary physician monitors your condition and determines when you’ve reached a level of MMI (maximum medical improvement). This means further treatment won’t improve your health status. Upon reaching a level of MMI, your physician decides if you can return to work. He’ll complete a return to work form with his determination.

  • If you are completely healed, your doctor may clear you to return to your former job.
  • If you need more recovery time, but you can eventually resume your prior job duties, your doctor may diagnose you with a temporary partial disability.
  • If your burn injuries are more serious, your doctor may diagnose you with a permanent partial disability. You may be able to work again, but not at your former job. Your employer may give you a new job to accommodate your disability, or if one isn’t available, you may have to look for employment elsewhere.
  • If your doctor diagnoses you with a permanent total disability, you won’t be able to return to work at all, either at your previous job or at any other type of employment.