This Weekend, Don't Become A Statistic (Or A Punchline): Crazy July 4th Injuries and How To Prevent Them

By Daniel Heimpel

The idea wasn't a good one. A group of fraternity brothers decided to barbecue by the side of a river on the outskirts of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, setting up their grill on a sand bar that could only be reached by a steep descent down the bank.

One of the young men, drunk and dehydrated, slipped and fell 15 feet onto the grill, which had been fashioned with an improvised spit. When Ben Abo, a veteran emergency medical technician, arrived ten minutes later, he found the man face down in the embers and dirt, one of the prongs intended for the roast poking through his stomach and jutting out of his back.

"On the Fourth of July most accidents happen because of stupidity," Abo says. "That is my job security."

Happily the student survived, but his is a cautionary tale. Chances are someone (actually, several someones) will do something just as stupid this July 4 weekend – and not all of them will be as lucky as our friend the human shish kabob. Alcohol and long days in the sun, combined with explosives, barbecues, and fast moving vehicles are a sure recipe for trouble. And while everyone knows not to light fireworks after doing a series of Jaegerbombs (right?), there are some other basic mistakes people make that could lead to comical, painful, even fatal injuries. Read and learn.

The Sparkle Fades

Denver resident Caley Cook calls it merely "the bad Fourth of July." Every year, her father would gather residents of their Redmond, Washington-area neighborhood for a homespun fireworks extravaganza. That year, all signs indicated that they should have packed well before sundown. First, a woman slipped on a child's toy and broke her ankle. A bike collision between children resulted in two dislodged teeth and a trip to the ER. And when her father lit the first professional-grade rocket, it puttered into the air and landed on a neighbor's roof. "Everyone stood still for a second to see if it would just die out," Cook says. "But the thing exploded on the roof and suddenly we could see flames."

A neighbor hurriedly scaled a ladder to try and fight the fire. He promptly fell into a bush. "You definitely won't catch my dad lighting any display-class fireworks in the neighborhood anymore," Cook says.

(Obvious) lesson learned: unless you're a professional, don't shoot professional pyrotechnics. But it's not just the serious fireworks that are a danger. Even seemingly innocuous sparklers pose a threat.

A report just released by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found sparklers caused eleven percent of 2008's 7,000 firework injuries – and that those injuries can occur even after all the sparkles seem finished, Ralph Apel, president of the National Council on Fireworks Safety, urges revelers to use a bucket of water as a receptacle for discarded sparklers, offsetting the high probability of someone with bare feet stepping on them. (At their peak, sparklers burn at about 1200-2000 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning even the left-over sticks can leave a mark).

Alfred Sacchetti, an emergency room physician at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, New Jersey, says that one of the most common and "exquisitely painful" injuries associated with sparklers are burns in the eye. "Often times you will see an actual pit in the cornea." Children, who stand just about eve-level to adults' hands, are uniquely prone to wandering into a faceful of sparks. Accordingly, Sacchetti warns adults around children to hold sparklers high above their waists.

The Grill of Defeat:

They called it Angus. The $20 cut of meat was perfect, and an extravagant treat for the group of hungry college students gathered for a backyard barbecue. After setting the hunk of protein on the gas grill, the kids sat around the picnic table, drinking beers and waiting for the meat to cook. At one point, someone noticed that the hose between the grill and the gas tank had caught fire, and the flames were slowly, slowly inching their way down towards the full tank of propane -- like the TNT fuse in an old Road Runner cartoon. There were screams. There was panic. In the end, a fire extinguisher was procured, and lives were saved – but Angus, sadly, could not be.

A 2007 study by the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) found that an estimated 3,448 people were treated in the ER for grilling accidents in the previous year. Abo has come across the telltale cross hashes of a grill emblazoned into arms, hands and even stomachs more times then he can remember. "Sometimes people are a little smarter and use the apron," he says.

But more serious injuries can lurk in the grass around the grill. "If you leave a BBQ fork on the ground and a kid steps on one end the sharp side can end up in another kid's stomach," says Abo. Children are also the ones most likely to be injured by a hot grill, according to the STATS study, so keeping the grill away from high traffic areas or out of the path between the bathroom and the pool is smart.

Dr. Sacchetti says that around the Fourth of July is when he sees a spike in eyebrow-less patients walking into the emergency ward. The culprit is flash burns from eager grill masters getting their face too close to the flame. (The eyelashes usually remain, protected by the recess of the eye).

That Sinking Feeling
Sheriff's Deputy Dennis Finney is one of 65 officers who patrol 1,500 bodies of water in Michigan's Oakland County. Finney says that the Independence Day celebrations are peak time for crazy nautical mishaps. "Boy, I have seen a whole boat sinking with the intoxicated driver telling everybody to dive in, then having one of the passengers yelling that she doesn't know how to swim," he says. While everybody was saved, combination of drinking and The Drink can make for serious hazards.

Obviously racing cigarette boats under the influence (or even while sober) can be rife with dangers, but even lazy, immobile "party barges" can be risky if too many people cram onto too small of a boat.

The combined deadly sins of laziness and vanity can be, as the name indicates, deadly. "People don't unpack their life vests because they don't want them to get dirty," says Finley. Boaters may also be reluctant to hide that perfectly themed stars-and-stripes bikini, or to look a little goofy or unsure. But in an emergency unwrapping a life vest can be a waste of moments you don't have – and in the event of a collision or a storm, even strong swimmers will need the added buoyancy.

A Thirst for Safety

Whether it is near a BBQ, on a boat or by the bank of a river all the experts agree that staying hydrated is key. "When you don't drink enough water any problem gets worsened ten fold," Abo says.

For the young man impaled on an improvised grill, dehydration may not seem at the top of his list of problems. But Abo says the lack of coordination and slowed reactions that come with dehydration definitely contributed to the wooziness before the fateful fall. For many, a few glasses of water can be the difference between a bad idea and a dangerous one.

Alternate a glass of water between every alcoholic beverage you consume: not only will you be less likely to end up the punchline to a holiday story, you'll also have less of a hangover on July 5.

Daniel Heimpel is a freelancer living in Los Angeles. More of his work can be found at