Clothing Fires a Hazard for Seniors

James R. Hood
James R. Hood

Thanks to COVID-19, a lot of people are sitting around the house in their pajamas or workout wear, but normally it’s seniors who tend to wear loose clothing, so perhaps it’s not surprising that older people account for 77% of the deaths from clothing fires, even though the 65+ group makes up only 16% of the population.

“All clothing can burn,” says Robert Adler, Acting Chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is starting a public education campaign about the problem. “And the loose clothing often favored by seniors can catch fire especially easily.”

Whether it’s a dangling sleeve over the stove top, or food left unattended – cooking accidents are the leading cause of fires in the home. But you may be surprised to know that burning trash, grass and debris outdoors is also a leading cause of clothing fire injuries to seniors. Using space heaters improperly is also high on the list.

So, what is catching fire? The leading clothing item ignited and causing these injuries is pants, followed by shirts, night gowns and robes. 

CPSC estimates there were about 1,100 emergency room visits per year associated with senior clothing fire injuries from 2015 to 2019. This includes both fires in the home and outdoor fires. 

  • An estimated 22% of these injuries are from cooking fires;
  •  21% are from burning trash/grass/debris; and
  • 12% are from space heater fires. 

According to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), there are an estimated annual average of 60 clothing fire deaths to seniors per year. Of these clothing fire deaths to senior citizens:

  • 24% are from “Range, Oven” fires;  
  • 23% are from smoking material-ignited fires; and
  • 11% are from heater fires.  

What to do

The vast majority of these fires are highly preventable. Here’s how you can be fire safe:

  • All Clothing Burns: Keep all clothing away from flames and ignition sources. Loose clothing can catch fire easily. 
  • Cook with Care: Keep sleeves and dangling clothing components away from the cooktop.
  • Outdoor Fire Safety: When burning trash and yard debris, keep a safe distance from any outdoor fire, and keep lighter fluid off clothing. Follow CDC guidelines regarding outdoor burning during the COVID 19 pandemic.
  • Space Heater Safety: Loose pants and robes in close proximity to a space heater can catch fire. Space heaters need space.
  • If You Smoke: Smoking materials can ignite clothing. Don’t smoke while drowsy; safely extinguish smoking material.
  • Extra Precaution: Have a fire extinguisher nearby, and place working smoke alarms on every floor outside sleeping areas and inside bedrooms. 

If clothing does catch fire, according to the CDC and the National Fire Prevention Association, stop (don’t run), drop and roll. Cover your face. Roll until the fire is out. If you’re not able to drop, use something like a blanket to put out the flames. Run cool water on your burn until emergency responders arrive.

Resources

Senior Safety Education Center

Sound the Alarm NSN Poster

Multigenerational Fire Safety Tool Kit

James R. Hood

Jim is a publishing entrepreneur and journalist. He founded ConsumerAffairs in 1998 and earlier was the founder of Zapnews, after holding executive posts at the Associated Press.