This Risk Focus, supported by numerous cases handled by the Club, highlights the danger burn injuries pose to crew members, required preventative measures and the importance of seeking the right treatment.

In the majority of cases, burn casualties reported to the Club were able to make a full recovery after receiving appropriate first aid or professional medical treatment ashore. However, some were not so fortunate, with seafarers suffering appalling physical pain, disfigurement, amputations and loss of life.

What is a burn?

A burn is damage to skin tissue which causes the affected skin cells to die resulting in swelling, blistering, redness, charring and tissue loss. The most common causes of burn injuries to crew onboard ships may be summarized as follows:

  • Steam and hot fluid burns
  • Contact with heated surfaces
  • Exposure to hot or burning solids, liquid or gas
  • Chemical burns
  • Electrical burns
  • Cold burns

The Risk Focus examines the different types of burn injury and preventative safety precautions as follows:

  • Steam and hot fluid burns and scalds: This is perhaps the most common type of burn injury to which ships crews are exposed. The Club’s claims experience indicates that the largest proportion of steam and hot fluid burns occur in the machinery spaces although other high risk environments include the galley, mess rooms and areas where high temperature tank cleaning or cargo operations are being performed.
  • Contact with heated surfaces: This is a very common cause of personal injury, particularly in machinery spaces and in the galley. Wherever possible, exposed hot surfaces should be effectively insulated and shielded to reduce the risk of direct contact. This will include machinery casings, steam and hot oil system pipelines and valves, exhaust manifolds and uptakes. Otherwise crew members should be fully alert to components that may be hot and use made of warning notices and signage.
  • Exposure to burning solids, liquid or gas: Burn injuries resulting from mishandling of flammable materials or improper use of burning machinery and equipment do often occur. Inhalation of smoke and hot gases associated with burning materials may also result in injury to airways and lungs
  • Chemical burns: All ships carry onboard a wide range of chemicals used in numerous applications in all departments. Many of these chemicals are potentially injurious to health and can result in serious burns to skin and eyes if proper protective precautions are not observed. Hazardous chemicals carried on board may be used variously for general cleaning, de-greasing, de-scaling, water and oil treatment, solvents, additives and hold and tank cleaning agents. Other possible sources of exposure may also include battery fluids and certain chemicals carried as cargo. Many of these chemicals are strongly acidic, alkaline and toxic.
  • Electrical burns: Working with or using electrical machinery, appliances, welding gear and tools not only expose personnel to the risk of electric shock but also to the possibility of associated burn injuries.
  • Cold burns: Contact with very cold substances or materials can damage skin and tissue in a way similar to heat burns. This type of injury is relatively rare on board ships, with most notable incidents being related to the loss of containment of pressurised or refrigerated gases. However, bare skin contact with uninsulated surfaces at sub-zero temperatures, as may be found in refrigerated cargo holds, provision stores or gas tanker deck fittings, may also cause injury.
  • Personal Protective Equipment: In this Risk Focus, numerous references have been made to the importance of crew wearing appropriate work clothing and making use of protective equipment when performing work that may expose them to the risk of burn injury. Doing so could possibly have prevented or at least reduced the impact of many of the injuries to crew that come to the attention of the UK Club.
  • Medical attention: Appropriate first aid must be used to treat any burns or scalds as soon as possible. This will limit the amount of damage to the skin. The type of treatment given to the casualty will depend upon the cause, location, skin area affected and severity of the burn. Ship’s crew should be trained so as to be able to effectively deal with burn cases as presented and have an understanding of the correct first aid to administer for the particular injury. Seafarer first aid training and knowledge needs to be regularly refreshed and supplemented by readily accessible medical information suited to the treatment of burns in a shipboard environment. “The ship captain’s medical guide” has served seafarers for decades and remains a valuable resource.

Recommendations on hot spots

  • Raise awareness of the potential risks of burn injury to crew of all ranks
  • Carry out ship specific training and familiarisation on hazard recognition and safe working practices
  • The requirement to apply meaningful risk assessments, permits to work and tool box talks to operations which may expose crew to risk of burns should be incorporated into the vessel SMS
  • Identify potential hazards and take steps to safely remove, isolate or control them
  • Always wear proper work clothes and use PPE
  • There should be a system in place for crew to openly report defects or unsafe working practices which may increase the risk of burn injury
  • If in any doubt, stop the job and re-assess the safety of the operation
  • Strictly observe manufacturer’s instructions and SMS requirements for operation and maintenance of machinery and equipment
  • Be vigilant and never make assumptions as to the safety of heated systems
  • Where practicable, keep clear when opening up heated systems
  • Raise awareness to the potential seriousness of burn injuries, no matter how apparently minor
  • Be aware of proper first aid actions when treating burn casualties
  • Seek professional medical advice using established tele-medical procedures

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