Typically, when people think of Memorial Day, images of barbecues, beaches, and spending time with family and friends come to mind. While I hope everyone enjoys this weekend, as a hand surgeon at The Philadelphia Hand Center at Jefferson, I also want you to stay safe and out of the emergency room. Year after year, we see the same injuries due to various holiday weekend activities — from grilling burns to lacerations to fractures and amputations. It's imperative that you pay attention to your surroundings, minimize distractions when working with sharp tools and equipment, and be prepared if an injury does occur.

Here are my tips on the top hand hazards to be aware of for you and your family this weekend.

Hand Hazard #1: Frozen Foods & Other Food Prep
When it comes to barbecues, so many people make the mistake of trying to pry frozen hamburger patties apart with a sharp knife. What happens? The knife slips and people end up stabbing themselves, resulting in deep lacerations and puncture wounds. It's better to defrost food first. Also, remember to always bend your fingers into the palm of your hand when holding food for slicing, dicing and chopping.

When grilling, never put your hand directly into the grill to light the flame. If you need to manually ignite it, use a long lighter (a lighter with an extension) and remember to always turn your gas off after use. Finally, never put your hand into kitchen appliances to clear blockages, even if it powered down.  Garbage disposals, blenders, and food processors lead to many severe injuries, including lacerations and amputations.

Hand Hazard #2: Broken Glass
It's common for wine glasses and beer bottles to be a part of Memorial Day weekend festivities. I always tell my patients to try use paper and plastic goods at parties to avoid glass shattering. Glass injuries are so devastating. Just a little pinpoint wound to your finger could cut both tendons and nerves. Once that happens, you'll be faced with a long recovery of extensive therapy sessions for rehabilitation.

When cleaning up glass, always use a broom or vacuum to pick up the broken pieces and protect your hands properly with gloves; never use your bare hands to pick up broken glass.

Hand Hazard #3: Fireworks & Sparklers
It's important to know how to handle these explosives safely if you plan on incorporating them into this weekend's festivities. As a hand surgeon, I recommend that fireworks be left to the professionals, however if you plan to set off your own, be sure to purchase authorized, legal, properly wrapped fireworks. Fireworks sold in brown bags are generally meant to be handled by professionals and are very, very dangerous. Never relight a firework that didn't go off completely because it could backfire.

I often see burn injuries that occurred when people were cleaning up.  Have a bucket of water on hand for clean-up and pour water on all firework debris before handling.

Sparklers, while pretty and easily accessible, can also be dangerous—they burn at about 2,000 degrees which is hot enough to melt some metals. Before lighting, educate children on firework safety and never leave them unattended. Here are a couple of tips we share with our patients to prevent sparkler injuries in children:

  • If a child is afraid to hold a sparkler, do not force them to do it. Children who are scared tend to react without thinking and throw the sparklers in response to fear.
  • To prevent the sparks that shoot off from touching their hands, purchase large disposable cups. Before lighting the sparkler, poke a hole in the bottom of the cup and put the handle of the sparkler through the hole. Have children hold the sparkler handle with their hand inside the cup.  The cup acts as a shield and the sparks will land on the cup and not their hands.

Hand Hazard #4: Animal Bites
We see many patients who get bit by dogs and cats at social gatherings. Seemingly innocent pets, that are normally friendly, can get excited in large crowds and behave differently in the presence of strangers, so you need to exercise caution. First, always ask the animal's owner if it is safe to pet their furry friend.

Before you pet an animal, first let them get familiar with your scent by offering your hand with your finger bent into your palm, in a slow and gentle manner. You never want to extend your fingers to an animal you don't know. I see this all the time — a dog or cat reacting to a stranger who is reaching out to pet them and then bites their finger or hand resulting in a fractured finger or even amputation.

If you do get bit, mix anti-bacterial soap and peroxide, in equal ratios, in a bowl of water and thoroughly clean the wound. Apply a pressure bandage if the wound is bleeding and be sure to seek professional medical attention to avoid infection and to have the wound site assessed. Before going to the ER, be sure to find out if the animal is up to date with his vaccinations, this will be very helpful for physicians when planning treatment for your injury.

Above all, have happy and safe Memorial Day weekend, and thank all who have served and who are currently serving our country.

Stephanie Sweet, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon at The Philadelphia Hand Center at Jefferson.