Man Suffers First Degree Burns From High-Vis Jacket In First Reported Case

The reflective tape on the man's jacket heated up in the sun to such an extent it gave him first degree burns whee it touched his skin. Dmitry Kalinovsky/Shutterstock

In what is thought to be the first reported case of its kind, a man in Australia has suffered first degree burns after the reflective strip of his high-vis jacket overheated in the Sun.

This doesn’t bode well for future disaster situations that may require emergency personnel to wear high-vis clothing in an increasingly warming world.

Reporting in the Medical Journal of Australia, Dr Ioana Vlad of Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, in Perth, Western Australia described the unprecedented case of minor burns.

It’s not unusual to want to strip out of your clothing as soon as you get home from work, especially if you work out in the field all day. A 40-year-old man in Perth, however, discovered when removing his work-required high-visibility jacket that he had a painful red rash across his back, right where the reflective strip of the jacket was.

Taking himself off to hospital, he was diagnosed with first degree burns, which doctors think were caused directly by the overheated reflective strip touching his skin. As far as they know, this is the first reported case of this happening.

"I think the burn occurred through skin contact with the hot reflective tape," Dr Vlad confirmed to IFLScience. "[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. The lower one, where the shirt is looser (not in direct contact with the skin) did not cause a burn, even if it was still in the sun and probably got quite warm."

The burn appeared as a painful non-blanching rash – one that doesn’t disappear when you press it – typical of skin injury or inflammation, but the man was otherwise healthy. He was treated with emollient aloe vera cream and a pain killer and though he experienced discomfort for a few days he didn't have any long-lasting damage.

First degree burns are common enough; they are the kind you get if you touch a hot iron, stovetop, hair straighteners, or get a nasty sunburn. Receiving one from reflective clothing is new, though, and suggests that manufacturers either need to change the way they produce high-vis clothing that features reflective tape to prevent this risk, or step up their warnings on how to wear reflective clothing safely.

The man, who wore high-vis jackets with reflective strips for his field environment engineer work, mentioned that he had often experienced the strips getting hot to touch before, and occasionally had to shift his position to avoid the hot tape touching his skin. Dr Vlad told IFLScience the issue is likely the reflective strip being in prolonged direct sunlight.

"[I]t was quite a hot day (42 degrees) and the patient was in direct sunlight as well with his back towards the sun," Dr Vlad said. However, "I think it could happen at lower temperatures as well if the tape is in direct sunlight (the patient had no burn on his chest from the frontal part of the tape which was close to skin but not in direct sunlight)."

Reflective tape, used for increasing one’s visibility, especially at night, is made from two materials; tiny glass beads or micro-prismatic tape made of plastic vinyl that bounce the light around and then back to the source.

According to the report, manufacturers do warn the tape risks smoldering or melting when subjected to heat, and safety warnings have mentioned cases of people experiencing heat buildup around the neck, ears, and shoulders, but there is no official medical literature on it as yet. As far as the authors are aware, this is the first medical case of skin burns occurring directly from overheating reflective tape.

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