Man Gets First-degree Burns From High-vis Jacket in First-ever Case of Its Kind

A 40-year-old man has been diagnosed with first-degree burns after his protective vest overheated.

The case study was published in the Medical Journal of Australia and is—at least as far as the author is aware—the first documented incident of skin burns caused by the overheating of retroreflective tape.

The situation came to the attention of medical authorities during the man's visit the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital's emergency room in Perth, Western Australia. He complained to staff of a painful red rash that ran across the middle of his back, which he said he first noticed upon arriving home and undressing after work.

Medics soon realized the position of the rash matched that of the upper high visibility band of his work shirt, which he had to wear throughout the day for his job as a field environmental engineer. The man told doctors the visibility tape frequently overheats when he is working in the sun—so much so that he sometimes has to change positions just so that it doesn't touch that part of his back.

"[T]he shirt had two reflective tapes, one around the chest and one around the waist. It was the higher one, that was in direct contact with the patient's back, that caused the burn," case study author Dr. Ioana Vlad, from Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, told Katy Evans at IFLScience. "I think it could happen at lower temperatures as well if the tape is in direct sunlight."

Burn High Vis Jacket
Vlad I. An unusual case of minor burns. Med J Aust 2019; 211 (7): 334-334.e1.; doi: 10.5694/mja2.50332. © Copyright 2019 The Medical Journal of Australia – reproduced with permission. The Medical Journal of Australia

Vlad says that employers enforcing dress codes that include retroreflective tape should make sure employees do not wear garments in a way that the tape comes in direct contact with skin. She also asks manufacturers to design shirts limiting the amount of tape-to-skin contact as far as possible, for example, by increasing the number or the thickness of cloth layers beneath the tape.

The purpose of retroreflective tape is to increase the wearer's visibility—hence the reason you often see cyclists wearing clothing containing the tape. This reflection is caused by minute glass beads or, less frequently, prismatic elements enclosed in a transparent film that bounces the light internally before sending it back towards its source.

While this is the first known case of first-degree burns from retroreflective tape, safety warnings do say that it can cause heat to build-up around the shoulders, neck and ears—and the material can smolder or melt when exposed to heat.

While not life-threatening, the burns did cause the patient some discomfort for a few days, the case study notes. He was treated with painkillers and aloe vera cream.