Incident - Skin grafts from chemical burns

Incident - Skin grafts from chemical burns

Issue 204

A labour hire worker required skin grafts after coming into contact with a highly alkaline caustic soda solution while carrying out a routine task without appropriate PPE. PETER BATEMAN summarises. 


  • A plastics recycling facility included a wash plant to clean incoming material. 
  • Caustic soda – sodium hydroxide – was pumped from a bulk container into a vat within the wash plant. 
  • The area was surrounded by a bund to contain liquid. 
  • C was a labour hire worker on placement at the facility. 
  • C had not been briefed on what the liquid in the bund was or what PPE should have been worn while walking in the bund, ie: gumboots. 
  • He was not wearing footwear that would have protected against alkaline burns. 


  • C started his shift at 7.30am and went to the wash plant to see if a bag holding plastic waste need to be changed. 
  • C entered the bund and found a new bag was needed. C detached the full bag and lowered it onto a trolley. 
  • C was exposed to liquid in the bund for about three minutes. 
  • Soon afterwards C felt discomfort in his toes. When the pain worsened he went home. 
  • C noticed bad blisters on his feet and went to the hospital, which measured a very high alkaline level present. 
  • C suffered caustic soda burns to the toes on both feet, requiring five skin grafts and eight days in hospital.
  • C lost part of the tops of both his little toes.
  • A metal grille was later laid over the bund to provide a safe walkway. 


  • In the hours before C arrived another worker noticed the bulk container was empty and that and that liquid within the bund was white, which was unusual. 
  • The main hose above the pump had split. The pump was shut down to stop the flow of caustic soda. 
  • Water was hosed into the bund to dilute the solution that had accumulated. 
  • The supervisor on the new shift was told about the spill and not to let C change the bags because the bund solution might have been unsafe. 
  • However, this instruction was not passed on to C. 
  • The solution in the bund would normally be 2% strength; the solution which caused C’s burns was found to be much higher. 
  • The design of the bund meant any liquids didn’t drain into a sump but had to be manually pumped out. 


  • Caustic soda causes severe skin burns and eye damage. PPE required includes gloves, protective clothing, eye and face protection, and rubber boots. 
  • All workers – including labour-hire staff – need to be inducted into their work areas and supplied with appropriate PPE and training. 
  • Problems encountered in one shift need to be clearly transmitted to the next shift. 
  • PPE is a last resort. Explore going up the hierarchy of risk controls to minimise or eliminate exposure. 


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