Updated August 23, 2020

What Causes Surgical Fires?

When you or someone you love is preparing to undergo surgery, you are probably worried about the outcome—all surgeries are risky, and you might be thinking about things that could go wrong.

A surprising addition to that list of possibilities: surgical fires.

Surgical fires can occur in the operating room (OR) when a patient is undergoing a medical or surgical procedure, and they usually cause severe injury. These events are almost always preventable, and depending on the circumstances, victims of surgical fires may be able to file a medical malpractice lawsuit.

How Common Are Surgical Fires?

According to the Council on Surgical and Perioperative Safety, there are approximately 650 surgical fires every year in the United States.

Some surgical procedures pose a greater risk of fire, including the following:

  • Surgeries in the head or neck area
  • Tracheotomies (incision in the windpipe)
  • Tonsillectomies (removal of the tonsils)
  • Adenotonsillectomies (removal of adenoids and tonsils)
  • Removal of papilloma (growths) from larynx (throat)

Their heightened risk is due to the presence of flammable materials in an especially oxidized environment.

What Causes Surgical Fires?

A fire can ignite in the OR when the three elements of the fire triangle are present: a fuel source, an oxidizer source, and an ignition source.

Fuel Source

Under the right conditions, any flammable item could be a source of fuel for a fire. Skin preps, cleaners, and ointments often contain alcohol, and surgical drapes can catch fire as well. Even the skin and hair on a patient could be a fuel source.

Nurses are responsible for most of these items and should ensure that they are not exposed to heat.

Oxidizer Source

Oxidizers can include oxygen, nitrous oxide, or even the air in the room itself. Generally, a higher concentration of oxygen in a room leads to greater fire conditions.

Since anesthesiologists monitor how much oxygen a patient receives, they control the oxidizer source. Patients should be provided with the lowest concentration that can safely be delivered to them to help prevent surgical fires.

Ignition Source

Anything in the OR that can create a spark or otherwise start a fire with the presence of fuel and an oxidizer is considered a possible ignition source. Tissue-cutting tools, lasers, fiber-optic lights, cables, defibrillators, drills, magnets—the list goes on and on.

These tools are generally controlled by the surgeon, and hospitals should have policies and procedures in place for how to handle items in surgical rooms that generate heat of any kind.

What Are Common Surgical Fire Injuries?

Surgical fires commonly cause the following injuries:

  • Second-degree and third-degree burns
  • Physical and emotional scars
  • Burns to the esophagus and other injuries from inhaling flames or smoke
  • Pain as a result of multiple corrective or plastic surgeries
  • Infections in damaged areas of the body
  • Difficulty breathing or chewing

These injuries can all cause severe long-term complications for victims of surgical fires.

Contact a Medical Malpractice Attorney Today

If you or a loved one have suffered injuries from a fire during surgery, you are urged to contact the attorneys of Wilson Kehoe Winingham. An experienced Indianapolis medical malpractice lawyer at WKW can help you get the compensation you deserve. Call 317.920.6400 or fill out an online contact form for a free, no-obligation case evaluation.

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