Facial Burns from Surgical Fires

By ThinkReliability Staff

At least two patients received burns to the face from surgical fires in early December 2011.  Surgical fires are becoming an increasing risk to patients (and staff) in the operating room.  Although the 550-650 surgical fires a year that are estimated to occur by the ECRI Institute is a small percentage of patients undergoing surgery, this doesn’t make surgical fires seem “rare” to those who are affected.

A surgical fire, like any fire, requires the presence of three elements: a heat (or ignition) source, fuel, and an oxidizing agent.  Oxygen is necessarily present for breathing; however, additional oxygen supplied to the patient increases the risk of a fire.  Additionally, nitrous oxide produces oxygen from thermal decomposition.  An increased level of oxygen increases the risk of a surgical fire.  Like oxygen, fuel will always be present in a surgical room.  Prep agents, drapes, and even a patient’s hair are fuel sources.  Vapors from insufficiently dry prep agents are extremely flammable.  Although some drapes are advertised as flame-resistant, the ECRI has determined that all types of drapes burn in oxygen.

Surgical equipment, such as electro-cautery devices and lasers, are believed to provide the ignition source for many surgical fires.  The increased use of such devices is believed to contribute to the increase in surgical fires.  Although these devices can provide benefits during surgery, a non-ignition source tool should be considered for surgery performed near the oxygen supply of a patient requiring oxygen.

The best way to protect patients from surgical fires is to prevent them by reducing the use of oxygen, decreasing the flammability of potential fuel sources in the operating room (by allowing prep agents to dry and coating hair or other flammable objects with water-based lubricant) and ensuring that heat sources are monitored carefully to reduce the risk of ignition.  In addition, operating teams should be prepared in the case of fire to minimize effects on patient and staff safety by taking steps to extinguish the fire and evacuate if necessary.

The effects and causes of surgical fires, as well as some recommended solutions, can be diagrammed in a Cause Map, a visual form of root cause analysis.  To view the Cause Map for surgical fires, please click “Download PDF” above.  Or click here to read a more detailed write-up about patient burns.

Additional resources on surgical fires:

ECRI Institute


The Joint Commission

Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation (APSF)