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Surgical Fires: A Threat to Patient Safety in the Operating Room

By: Anapol Weiss

Surgical fires, though rare, can kill or severely burn patients undergoing a medical procedure. These preventable fires are the result of the negligence of health care providers in various settings ranging from hospitals to urgent care centers to doctor’s offices.

The patient safety organization Emergency Care Research Institute (ECRI) has estimated that 200 to 240 surgical fires occur each year in the United States, while the FDA estimates as many as 650. A fire can ignite during surgery when all three elements of the fire triangle – ignition source, oxidizer and fuel – are present.

Ignition sources during surgery, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), may include:

  • Electrosurgical units (ESU) that cut, coagulate and destroy tissue

  • Lasers

  • Defibrillators

  • Argon beam coagulators, which use electricity and argon gas to stop bleeding

  • Drills

  • Static electricity

  • Fiber optic light sources

Fuel sources may include alcohol preps, fabric and disposable drapes, gauze and dressings, hair, ointments and more. In addition to the typical room air as an oxidation source, common equipment such as oxygen cylinders, nitrous oxide machines and ventilators can all be sources of oxidation.

Virtually all surgical fires can be prevented through education and safe practices. Sadly, fires in health care facilities continue to happen, and patients are left to suffer the consequences. We have represented several clients who have suffered from burn injuries and permanent disfigurement due to surgical fires. In each case, the fire was the result of the failure of the health care providers involved in the procedure to properly prepare the patient, allowing an unrecognized buildup of oxygen. When an electrosurgical device was then used, the built up oxygen ignited, causing the fire and injuring the patient.

Contact Anapol Weiss for assistance if you or a loved one was involved in a surgical fire as a patient. Our experienced team can investigate the situation and answer any legal questions you may have.