Patient Safety Tip of the Week

August 12, 2014

Surgical Fires Back in the News



We’ve done many columns on surgical fires (see the list at the end of today’s column). Theoretically, such fires should never happen. Nevertheless, every year we continue to see reports of patients harmed by fires in the OR and all have contributing factors that should have been avoidable.


Last month Modern Healthcare had a cover story about surgical fires (Carlson 2014a). It was highlighted by a case in which an emergency tracheostomy was being attempted on a patient with a severe allergic reaction that had caused a swollen tongue that impaired breathing. The surgeon asked that the patient be prepped, then made an incision which bled. He then used an electric cauterizing tool that ignited the alcohol-based skin disinfectant. The patient suffered second degree burns on his neck and shoulders. There was inadequate delay for alcohol-based skin the disinfectant to dry and the patient had received 100% oxygen. Thus all the elements of the “fire triangle” (fuel, oxidizer, heat source) were present in a high-risk patient (head and neck surgical procedure). We discussed the role of alcohol-based skin preps or other volatile substances in our April 24, 2012 Patient Safety Tip of the Week “Fire Hazard of Skin Preps, Oxygen” and our June 25, 2013 Patient Safety Tip of the Week “Update on Surgical Fires”.


One post-incident step the hospital in the above case did was to ban use of alchohol-based skin disinfectants in emergency cases. We’ve actually previously briefly noted this case (Natt 2013) in our October 1, 2013 Patient Safety Tip of the Week “Fuels and Oxygen in OR Fires”. They implemented a policy prohibiting alcohol-based skin preps in any emergency surgery that does not allow sufficient drying time (usually 3 minutes or longer). Instead they have gone back to non-alcohol-based preps like Betadine for such emergency cases.


A preview of AORN's new skin prepping guidelines (Van Wicklin 2014) notes that there is not enough strong evidence to say that any one antiseptic is more effective than another for preventing SSIs. Alcohol-based antiseptics may be more effective than those that are water-based, but other than that, the evidence doesn't clearly favor one over another. She points out that a Cochrane review of 13 randomized control trials concluded that the evidence for skin antiseptics is lacking quality, and that no conclusion could be reached as to which is the most effective skin antiseptic. She also notes that evidence supports the use of colored antiseptics, both to ensure complete coverage of the surgical site and to reduce the risk of fire. So it appears we really don’t lose efficacy in preventing SSI’s when we use non-alcohol-based skin preps in cases at high risk for surgical fires.


One of the authors of the Modern Healthcare article a few days later noted that some scientists and others pointed out that oxygen is not flammable (Carlson 2014b). Yes, that is technically correct. What oxygen does is make it easier for various flammable items and substances to ignite and burn when exposed to a heat source. For example, the alcohol-based skin preps will burn faster and more intensely in higher oxygen concentrations (Eichhorn 2013).


Eichhorn points out that many anesthesiologists fail to recognize the great risks caused by open supplemental oxygen (nasal cannulae or perforated facial masks used with 2 or 3L/min oxygen flow) during monitored anesthesia care (MAC). That is certainly supported by the malpractice claims study we highlighted in our June 25, 2013 Patient Safety Tip of the Week “Update on Surgical Fires”. In that study (Mehta 2013) 99% of cases involved procedures known to be high risk for fires (head, neck, or upper chest surgery), electrocautery was the ignition source in 90%, and oxygen was the oxidizer in 95%. The vast majority of claims were for fires that occurred during monitored anesthesia care rather than general anesthesia and in the vast majority of claims involving monitored anesthesia care the oxygen was delivered by an open delivery system. There has been a trend for surgical/OR fires to be seen more often in relatively minor surgery (eg. plastic procedures, removal of skin lesions, temporal artery biopsies, etc.), done under sedation or monitored anesthesia care where there is open delivery of oxygen.


Eichhorn notes that eliminating open delivery of supplemental oxygen during upper body MAC procedures has been a focus of the Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation. He notes that supplemental oxygen is overused and in many cases is unnecessary. Though he does discuss some less reliable strategies to mitigate the oxygen risk, he stresses that the patient who truly needs oxygen should receive it via a laryngeal mask or endotracheal tube. The recently updated ASA Practice Advisory for the Prevention and Management of Operating Room Fires (Apfelbaum 2013) also stresses that.


In our July 22, 2014 Patient Safety Tip of the Week “More on Operating Room Briefings and Debriefings” we again reiterated that one of the questions we always expect to be asked during the pre-op briefing/huddle is “Is this a high risk case for surgical fire?”. The pre-op briefing/huddle often gets overlooked in emergency cases but that is a question easily asked when you have the nurse, anesthetist and surgeon readying the patient for the procedure. Others include discussion of the surgical fire risk as part of their surgical timeout or Universal Protocol.


While we still recommend every organization perform drills on how to respond to OR fires, we concur with Culp and colleagues (Culp 2013) and Eichhorn that the focus needs to be on prevention. We’ve emphasized in the numerous columns below the need to include a fire risk assessment in your pre-procedure “huddle” and include this in your Surgical Safety Checklist. Eichhorn points out that our training in anesthesiology residency programs (and inservicing and continuing medical education for previously trained anesthesiologists) must focus on the need to avoid open delivery of oxygen in procedures done under MAC.


We’ve always praised the California Department of Public Health’s publication of root cause analyses and plans of correction for serious hospital events because they almost always have valuable lessons learned for all healthcare organizations. Last month the CDPH had two such cases that involved surgical fires, both of which include important lessons learned.


In the first case, a patient developed second degree burns of her face and lip after a fire erupted during surgery on her nose for a basal cell carcinoma (CDPH 2014a). The patient was receiving oxygen via nasal cannula when the surgeon began using a Bovie device for cautery. The surgeon apparently did not announce in advance his intent to use the Bovie. The hospital policy in existence at the time required that the surgeon announce such intent so that the anesthesiologist could stop oxygen administration for at least one minute prior to use of the elecctrocautery.


The case illustrates an important point: you can have the best policy in the world but if staff fail to follow it untoward consequences may occur. The hospital did the customary re-education of surgeons, anesthesiologists, and surgical/OR staff after the event and ensured inclusion of surgical fire prevention in its orientation and reorientation activities. It also modified its policy and procedure for surgical fire prevention and audited subsequent head and neck surgical procedures for compliance with the policy.


In their revised P&P they did include 5 steps we like:

  1. The surgeon announces aloud to the anesthesiologist the intent to energize the cautery device.
  2. The anesthesiologist will acknowledge and announce aloud “the oxygen is being turned off”.
  3. The anesthesiologist will give the surgeon notification when it is safe to proceed (i.e., after at least one minute of oxygen being turned off).
  4. Thereafter, the surgeon will notify the anesthesiologist when finished with the cautery.
  5. The anesthesiologist will notify the surgeon and the OR nursing staff that oxygen has commenced.

That, of course, is a good example of the importance of using “hearback” and 2-way communication to ensure that all understand the events to be undertaken.


The revised P&P also required the anesthesiologist to document in the OR chart the time at which oxygen was stopped. That also allows for auditing by quality improvement personnel of cases for compliance with the policy.


One critical element not mentioned in the CDPH document is whether that hospital’s P&P’s include discussion of fire risk either as part of a pre-surgical briefing/huddle or as part of the surgical timeout. We think that is critical and strongly suggest all facilities actually include that as part of a checklist for either the pre-procedure briefing or the timeout (see our January 2011 What’s New in the Patient Safety World column Surgical Fires Not Just in High-Risk Casesfor examples of how to do this).


Inservicing on prevention of rare events is simply not enough to help all remember the risks and steps involved in prevention of such events. Including the risk in the pre-op briefing/huddle or surgical timeout raises awareness in real time.


The second CDPH case (CDPH 2014b) did include in the Plan of Correction incorporation of discussion of fire risk into their Universal Protocol and creation of a “Fire Risk Assessment Tool”. That case involved planned same day surgery for wide-excision removal of a squamous cell carcinoma from the neck of a patient. The case was being done while 60% oxygen was being administered via face mask and Chloraprep had been used for skin preparation. When the surgeon began to use a cautery device a spark apparently ignited operative gauze and fire flashed up to the face mask. The patient suffered second degree burns to his eyelids, eyebrows, forehead, cheeks and anterior third of his tongue. Staff immediately removed the mask and surgical drapes and flushed the patient’s face and affected areas with saline. Because there was some tongue swelling the patient was intubated to protect the airway. A plastic surgeon and wound surgeon were immediately called in to evaluate the patient. The neck surgery was completed while the patient was put under general anesthesia and he was then transferred to the Burn Unit of another hospital where he underwent burn management, including skin grafting.


The hospital’s various policies and procedures apparently did not include stopping flow of oxygen for at least a minute prior to using electrocautery. In addition, the skin prep had utilized Chloraprep with the 26 ml applicator, which has specific labeling not to be used for head and neck surgery. Note that in our April 24, 2012 Patient Safety Tip of the Week Fire Hazard of Skin Preps Oxygen” we noted another surgical fire in which a hospital had switched from the 10.5 ml Chloraprep applicator, which did not have the warning to avoid use in head and neck surgery, to the 26 ml applicator which did have the warning.


The hospital subsequently revised its P&P’s and did customary inservicing and education of all impacted departments. In addition to developing the fire risk assessment tool and including fire risk assessment in their Universal Protocol, they also mandated that non-alcohol-containing skin preps be used for head/neck surgery rather than Chloraprep. Their revised P&P’s included anesthesiologists securing the airway (eg. intubation) in head and neck cases where oxygen is required.


They also now require use of wet sponges in the surgical field in all cases above the xyphoid, attention to avoid accumulation of oxygen under surgical drapes, and attention to the power used in electrocautery units or laser units. They also include fire drills for surgical fires and monitor cases for compliance with policies.


Surgical fires should be 100% preventable. In addition to those measures that reduce the oxygen-enriched environment and minimize the risk of flammable substances (such as used in skin preps), improving communication between surgeons and all OR staff, doing drills and simulations, training and inservicing, and monitoring for compliance with P&P’s, probably the most important thing you can do is continuously raise awareness of surgical fire risk by incorporating such discussion into your pre-op briefing/huddle or your surgical timeout or Universal Protocol.


And, of course, we again refer you to the valuable resources on surgical fires provided by ECRI Institute, AORN, the FDA, Christiana Care Health System and the APSF.



Our prior columns on surgical fires:




Update: See our December 16, 2014 Patient Safety Tip of the Week “More on Each Element of the Surgical Fire Triad”.







Carlson J, Rice S. Safety advocates push to curb hospital surgical fires. Modern Healthcare 2014; July 12, 2014



Natt TM. Operating-Room Fire at Hospital Burns Patient, Prompts Changes. August 9, 2013



Van Wicklin S. A Preview of AORN's New Skin Prepping Guidelines. Let a growing body of evidence govern your bedside practice. 2014



Carlson J. Chemistry 101: Oxygen is not flammable. Modern Healthcare 2014; July 16, 2014



Eichhorn JH. A Burning Issue: Preventing Patient Fires in the Operating Room. Anesthesiology 2013; 119(4): 749-751



Mehta SP, Bhananker SM, Posner KL, Domino KB. Operating Room Fires: A Closed Claims Analysis. Anesthesiology 2013; 118(5): 1133-1139, May 2013



Apfelbaum JL, Caplan RA, Barker SJ, et al. Practice Advisory for the Prevention and Management of Operating Room Fires: An Updated Report by the American Society of Anesthesiologists Task Force on Operating Room Fires. Anesthesiology 2013; 118(2): 271-290



Culp WC, Kimbrough BA, Luna S. Flammability of Surgical Drapes and Materials in Varying Concentrations of Oxygen. Anesthesiology 2013; 119(4): 770-776



CDPH (California Department of Public Health). Complaint Intake Number CA00224633. CDPH 2014



CDPH (California Department of Public Health). Complaint Intake Number CA00256145. CDPH 2014



ECRI Institute. Surgical Fire Prevention.



AORN (Association of periOperative Registered Nurses). Fire Safety Tool Kit.



FDA. Preventing Surgical Fires.



Christiana Care Health System. Surgical Fire Risk Assessment.



APSF (Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation). Resources. Fire Safety Video. Prevention And Management Of Operating Room Fires.




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