How to enjoy a safe cook-out

Now that the weather is warmer, it’s time to fire up the grill. However, before you put on that first piece of meat please take note of a few precautions.

Written By ERNEST GRANT, RN, MSN, for UNC Health Care

Every year, hundreds of people in the United States suffer painful and sometimes life-threatening burns that result from the careless use of outdoor grills. These injuries result primarily from the use of unapproved lighter/starter fluids, such as gasoline, and the misuse of approved fluids.

In addition, many injuries occur when gas grills are improperly used. A fire or explosion can occur when a grill is used the first time after it has been left idle.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in 2005, U. S. fire departments responded to an estimated 8,300 home fires involving grills, hibachis or barbeques, including 3,400 structure fires and 4,900 outside fires.  These 8,300 fires caused 10 civilian deaths (to the nearest ten), 110 reported injuries and $137 million in direct property damage.1  Also in that same year, an estimated 8,610 people were see at hospital emergency rooms for thermal burns caused by grills.2 

Where I work, at the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, we see approximately 30 patients each year with grill-related injuries. However, all of these grill–related injuries are easily preventable by following the safety tips outlined below.

  • When lighting a gas grill, keep the top open. If the grill does not light in the first several attempts, wait five minutes to allow gas to dissipate.
  • Check grill hoses for cracking, brittleness, holes, and leaks. Make sure there are no sharp bends, holes and leaks.
  • Check the gas grill for leaks every time the cylinder is replaced.
  • Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the grill and use caution when storing LP gas containers.
  • Never store a spare gas container under or near the grill or indoors.

You should take just as much care when using a charcoal grill. Charcoal produces carbon monoxide (CO) when it is burned. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can accumulate to toxic levels in closed environments.

For this reason, charcoal should never be used inside homes, vehicles, tents or campers – even if ventilation is provided. Dozens of people in the Triangle region of North Carolina who lost electrical power in their homes due to an ice storm in December 2002 ended up in hospital emergency departments after burning charcoal grills in their homes to keep warm. Several of them died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

When using charcoal lighter fluid, follow the directions carefully and do not use too much lighter fluid. Use only fluid made for charcoal grills and never any other type of fluid.

To speed a slow fire, tuck dry kindling under the charcoal. Make sure the grill is level and steady and keep a container of water nearby. Never attempt to re-ignite fizzling coals. The old coals should be dumped and replaced with fresh ones.

All outdoor grills have the potential to lead to a tragedy when carelessness causes structural fires or serious burns to people and pets. To avoid the deadly dangers of grilling, follow these few simple rules.

  • Keep a fire extinguisher accessible near your grill area when you begin.
  • Be sure you know how to use a fire extinguisher before you need it.
  • Be sure all children know how to dial 911 for any emergency situation.
  • Do not wear loose clothing while cooking.
  • Be vigilant when you have small children around. There are many potential hazards from the lighter fluid, the propane tanks and the hot surfaces of the grill.
  • Never leave any grill unattended or allow children to play or run in the area of the grill.

If you or someone else is burned in a grilling-related accident, the first thing you should do is extinguish any open flames on the person’s skin or clothing. This may be accomplished by having the person stop, drop and roll to smother the flames. It may also be necessary to smother the flame with a blanket or towel.

Once that has been accomplished, you should remove all clothing from around the burned area, including diapers, because clothing will retain heat. Then run cool water – not cold water – over the burn area for a few minutes.

There are also some things you should not do. For example, do not apply ice directly to the burn. Ice can make the burn worse. Do not apply creams, ointments or salves. These products retain heat in the damaged tissue. Do not break any blisters before going to see a doctor. Blisters should be covered with a clean, dry cloth.

Minor burns smaller than a person’s palm can usually be treated at home. Keep the area clean to prevent infection by gently washing with mild antimicrobial soap several times a day and rinsing thoroughly. Cover open areas with a clean, loose dressing. Consult with your family physician or local burn center if the burn does not heal in 2-3 days or redness extending well beyond the border of the burn appears. Burns larger than the person’s palm should be evaluated by a physician.

Following these few simple rules will ensure that everyone enjoys a safe grilling season.


Ernest Grant, RN,MSN, is an education outreach clinician at the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center at the University of North Carolina Hospitals and director of the center’s “Learn Not to Burn” program.

1.      Home Fires involving Cooking Equipment, John R. Hall, Jr., National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA  February 2008
2.      U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, 2008