Flames on a bbq grill.

Make sure your summer cookout stays fun and safe

Accidents happen

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One of summer’s most delicious activities is the cookout.

But grilling involves risk of fires, along with the resulting injuries, if it’s not done correctly.

“About 20,000 people in the United States see doctors for grill injuries every year. July is the peak month for injuries from fires due to grills,” said John Wipfler, MD, Emergency Department physician for OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center and a clinical professor of emergency medicine at University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria.

The National Fire Protection Association reports 58% of grill-related fires occur during the four-month stretch from May through August. July leads the way with 18% — nearly one of every five.

What are the most common grill fires and injuries, and what are the best ways to prevent them?

Burns from hot flame

“Injuries to the fingers and arms are the No. 1 injuries from a grilling device,” Dr. Wipfler said.

Food on a bbq grill.

The majority of those are flash burns, caused by a sudden and intense exposure to the flame. They commonly occur when grease dripping from food on the grill makes direct contact with the fire and causes it to flare. Mistakes made when lighting the grill also cause many injuries.

Stay safe. Read the directions on how to prepare, use and properly maintain your grill.

When cooking, don’t linger too close to the grill, and stay focused. Use a clean grease trap and empty it when finished. Also, don’t overload your grill with fatty food, because it creates a grease burden. If you are cooking a lot of food, use multiple grills or plan your cooking over a period of time to avoid a buildup of greasy residue.

Contact burns

The No. 2 most common injuries from grills are contact burns, suffered when your skin makes contact with a hot surface. That could be the grates on the grill itself, as well as the metal cover, side burners, hot coals or even utensils.

“Another thing to know about contact burns from the grill is that 40% involve children less than 5 years old,” Dr. Wipfler said. “So use your grill in a location where young children are not able to touch it.”

Small explosions

According to the NFPA, grills cause about 9,000 home fires every year. Most of those are the result of grills located too close to the house, grill fires out of control and explosions, which don’t have to be large to cause a lot of damage.

“One rule is to keep your grill at least 10 feet away from any house structure,” Dr. Wipfler said.

In other words, avoid enclosed or covered porches. If you’re cooking on a wooden deck, keep your grill away from railings, furniture and the like.

Another piece of advice: Always keep the grill hood open when fueling and lighting the grill. Got that?

“Never let the gas build up or light the grill with the lid closed,” Dr. Wipfler said.

Trying to put out fires

Other injuries may occur when people panic trying to put out a fire, whether it’s out of control in your grill or has spread to a structure, grass or other material.

“One thing to do is keep a dry powder-type fire extinguisher nearby, whenever you grill. Do not use a water-filled extinguisher. In order to manage the small grease flame under your food, many cooks will use a small spray bottle of water, to keep the flames under control,” Dr. Wipfler said.

That said, never use water on a large grease fire.

“That combination of water and grease can spread the fire rapidly, causing hot grease burns and a large fireball-type explosion. For a large grease fire, throw on baking soda – or a bucket of sand,” Dr. Wipfler said.

Location and preparation

Father showing son safe grilling tecniques.

Grills come in all types and sizes: gas grills, charcoal grills, smokers, wood-fired, hibachis. All are equally safe if you use them correctly – or equally unsafe if you don’t.

“When you talk about ways to prevent grill fires, you want to think first of location and preparation,” Dr. Wipfler said.

Make sure to locate your grill on a solid, level surface, safely away from anything that might catch fire. Preparation includes making sure your grill is in good working order and there are no rusty, leaking parts.

More safety tips

“The No. 1 safety tip with a grill is to open the manual and read all safety tips,” Dr. Wipfler said. “Read all directions and note how to properly use and maintain the grill, as well as important mistakes to avoid.”

He also offers some additional dos and don’ts to the ones already mentioned:

  • Wear proper clothing. Don’t allow loose sleeves or apron ties to dangle over the fire.
  • Keep party decorations safely distant. They’re flammable.
  • Don’t roughhouse or play games in the vicinity of the grill.
  • If the weather goes bad, never try to grill inside your home. “Yes,” Dr. Wipfler said, “some folks actually have tried this, usually with a bad outcome.”
  • Use the correct fuel. Never light a charcoal grill with gasoline.
  • Do not try to move your grill when it’s lit or still hot.

Outdoor grilling with friends and families is one of the highlights of a great summer. With these safety tips, you can cook some great food and avoid going to the Emergency Department with burn injuries.

Safe emergency care

During the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, OSF HealthCare hospital emergency departments remain open and safe. Our emergency department teams follow guidelines by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for cleaning rooms, equipment and surfaces between patients.

Like other areas of the hospital, everyone entering the emergency department is expected to wear a mask and have a brief health check at the door.

Last Updated: February 11, 2022

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About Author: Kirk Wessler

After being a writer for OSF HealthCare for three years, Kirk Wessler retired in January 2022. A Peoria native and graduate of Bradley University, Kirk's experience included working for newspapers in Missouri, Texas and the Peoria Journal Star.

Kirk and his wife, Mary Frances, have five sons, four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. Kirk plans to spend his retirement on the golf course, mastering the guitar and traveling.

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