Kitchen 911 Hazards

ER veteran and a Dr. Oz Show expert contributor, Dr. Leigh Vinocur discusses the 5 common kitchen hazards. Learn how to create a safe kitchen and how to treat accidents when they occur.

Posted on | By Leigh Vinocur, MD, FACEP

If you think the only mishaps that can happen in your kitchen are a flat souffle or burnt cookies, think again. Kitchens are one of the most dangerous rooms in the house!

Did you know that the leading cause of death among children is accidental injury, and about half of those accidents occur in the home? The American College of Emergency Physicians states about 4.5 million kids are seen in the emergency department because of injuries occurring in the home.  And according to National Safety Council household injuries account for over 54,000 deaths and 13 million disabling injuries every year.

For many of us our kitchens are the nerve center of our homes. They are the place we eat, do homework, pay bills and often, the place where we all just hangout!  To keep your kitchen safe, here are 5 common kitchen hazards to watch out for:

Burns

Scalds are twice as common as fire burns in kids and are usually more serious, resulting in more hospitalizations.  About 300,000 burns from scalding steam or hot liquids are seen every year in emergency departments around the country. Over one-third of these occur in young children. It just takes a second for a toddler to grab a pot with boiling water from the stove or even a mug of hot coffee off the counter. Children are the most vulnerable because of their natural curiosity, but also they have thinner skin that burns more quickly. If a liquid is over 160F it only takes one second of contact with human skin to cause a serious burn - and in kids less than 5 years of age, it takes half the time! Deaths from scalding burns are the highest for kids under 4 years of age.

Burns from actual kitchen fires are another risk. According to the National Fire Protection Association, cooking fires are the #1 cause of home fires and home fire injuries. Most people are injured trying to put out the fire themselves.  So don't pour water over a grease fire, it actually causes the grease to splatter and spread the fire. 

Here are some key safety tips to prevent these injuries:

  • Never leave a child unattended in a kitchen (not even for a second) when cooking and never leave hot food or hot liquids within their reach.
  • When cooking on the stove, cook on the back burners and turn pot handles inward out of reach of small children and push any mugs with hot liquid to the back of the counter.
  • Designate a 3-foot area in front of the stove where kids are not allowed, use tape to help them distinguish this as a "danger zone." Consider placing a stove guard in front of your stove to prevent kids from reaching anything on the stove.
  • Avoid drinking hot liquids while holding children on your lap.
  • Always keep a fire extinguisher handy in your kitchen.

In the event of an emergency and you or your child gets burned, here are some first aid tips:

  • Remove affected clothing.
  • Run the burned area under cool water for 15 minutes.
  • Do not apply butter or ointments or creams.
  • Then cover with a dry clean gauze.
  • Call 911.


Bacteria

There are also invisible dangers lurking in our kitchen! The CDC estimates that there are 76 million cases of food borne illnesses each year which send about 325,000 people to the hospital and cause 5,000 deaths yearly. They are caused by eating foods contaminated with bacteria, viruses or parasites, often from improper cooking, handling or storage.  And while most cases run their course in a day or two without many complications, this is not so for young children, pregnant women, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. These individuals are the most at risk for severe, and sometimes fatal, complications like blood infections and kidney failure.


Part of the problem is that today, we have global food supply chain so there are many points that allow for potential contamination. In addition, there are not enough inspectors in FDA to cover all the needed inspections both here and overseas. The Department of Agriculture is doing a better job now with meat and poultry, which is usually a domestic source, but our new threat today is produce from all over world.

Here are some safe food handling tips:

  • Wash hands well with soap and warm water, clean and disinfect counter tops, plates and utensils before and during the preparation as you touch and use raw foods to avoid cross contamination.
  • To further prevent cross contamination, keep raw fish, poultry, meats and eggs separate from ready-to-eat foods and produce and use different plates and utensils for these items.
  • Refrigerate all foods immediately at the proper temperature (40F in the fridge and freeze at 0F). Defrost in the fridge not on the countertops.
  • Cook all foods to the proper temperature to kill any bacteria, that's about 150F for steaks, roasts and chops of  beef, 165F for ground veal, pork or poultry, and 180F for whole poultry (the juices should run clear on properly cooked poultry).
  • Don't leave foods out for more than 2 hours without serving them on hot or cold plates and reheat all leftovers to at least 165F.

Cuts

Hand injuries overall account for about 10% of all emergency department visits. Lacerations, the medical term for cuts, are a very common injury in the kitchen resulting from both knives and broken glass. If you do drop a dish or drinking glass, clean it up immediately but not with your bare hands. Use a broom and dust pan instead. And no walking barefoot until you are sure all the tiny shards are gone!

As far as knives, it goes without saying to keep them out of reach of young children. Some other tips for safe knife handling include:

  • Pay attention! Don't get distracted while cutting or slicing.
  • Don't keep knives in a disorganized drawer where they stick up and stab someone reaching into the drawer. If you do keep knives in a communal drawer, put a cork on the sharp tip.
  • Keep knives sharp. Dull knives require more pressure to cut and that makes them more likely to slip and cut you.
  • Hold the knife in your stronger hand, pick it up by the handle, cut on a flat cutting board surface, curl fingers under and away from the edge of the blade, and don't ever try to catch a falling knife.
  • Don't bury knives under other dishes in the sink and turn the knife point upside down when loading a dishwasher.

If an injury does occur:

  • Wash the cut with soap and water.
  • Put pressure on it with a clean gauze to stop or control the bleeding after you clean it.
  • It the cut is longer than a centimeter or your finger or hand feels numb, you may need stitches so go to an emergency room to have it evaluated.
  • Is the person feels dizzy or weak, lay them down and call 911.


Falls

Even though kids running around the kitchen or climbing on chairs and counters pose a risk of injury from falls, probably the elderly have a biggest risk from falling. According to the CDC, more than one third of adults over the age of 65 fall every year. And falls are the leading cause of injury death in the elderly. To reduce this risk, seniors should stay active to maintain good muscle strength and balance. In addition there are also some precautions we can take in our homes to minimize the risk of falling:

  • Light switches should be located at the entrance of the kitchen and turned on before entering.
  • Spills should be cleaned up immediately and floors should not be over waxed or polished, consider a non-skid secured rug in front of the sink.
  • Arrange items so those most used are in lower cabinets and easily accessible; for less used items, store them in higher cabinets and use a sturdy step stool (not a chair!) to reach them. Consider a special long handled grabber device for higher up items.
  • Keep cabinet doors closed when not in use, don't carry or remove more items from a cabinet than you can handle comfortably.

If someone has fallen in your home:

  • If they are not breathing start CPR and stop any bleeding with pressure.
  • If they are unconscious or complaining of neck, back or hip pain DO NOT move them or try to straighten twisted limbs or try to push bones back under the skin.
  • Call 911 immediately.

Poisonings

According to the American Association of Poison Centers there are about 2.5 million incidents of poisoning reported every year. More than 500,000 seek emergency care because of poison exposure and, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians, about 30,000 people will die due to poisonings.  Over 90% of these poisonings occur in the home with 50% of those occurring in children under the age of 5. Most poisonings involve everyday household items such as cleaning products in our kitchens and the medicines in our cabinets. Cleaning fluids are often brightly colored and can look like punch or fruit drinks to a small child. It takes just a minute of distraction for you not to notice your curious toddler has grabbed bottle and taken a swig.

You might suspect a poison exposure if someone gets suddenly sick without an apparent reason. But don't wait until you see signs or symptoms in your child to call for help. If you suspect your child has been exposed to a potential poison because you find them with an opened or half-filled bottle of cleaning fluid, call 911 or your local Poison Control Center. The National Poison Control number is 800-222-1222; they are open 24/7 and can direct you to your local Poison Control Center.

Here are some tips to prevent poisoning in your home:

  • Put the local or national Poison Control numbers near your home phone in the kitchen and program the numbers into your cell phone.
  • Keep medications in high cabinets out of children's reach and put childproof locks on lower cabinets that might contain cleaning products.
  • Don't store household chemicals in food containers and put all cleaning products away immediately after use.
  • Do the same with medications. Try to avoid taking medications in front of children who often mimic adult activity. Never call medicine candy!
  • Be aware of houseguests that may bring medications into your house and make sure they are also stored out of your children's.

What you should do if you suspect a poisoning has occurred:

  • Remain calm. Start CPR if the person is not breathing.
  • Call 911 and Poison Control with the following information ready: the poison container or bottle, the age and weight of the person who took it, the approximate time of the exposure to/consumption of the poison, and the address of where it occurred.
  • Stay on the phone for instruction from the 911 operator or Poison Control operator.

What NOT to do:

  • DO NOT wait for symptoms if you suspect someone has taken poison.
  • DO NOT give an unconscious person something by mouth.
  • DO NOT induce vomiting unless instructed by the operator.
  • DO NOT try to neutralize a poison with lemon juice, vinegar or baking soda unless told to do so by an operator.

The kitchen is the heart of your home, keep it safe. Be smart and cautious, it only takes one careless second for a tragedy to happen.

Article written by Leigh Vinocur, MD, FACEP
Board-certified Emergency Physician, Adjunct Assistant Professor LSU Health-Shreveport