Kitchen safety hints help prevent disaster

Mary Ann Lienhart Cross

My columns are about food, nutrition and all that happens in the kitchen. Over the years I have written about personal experiences and ideas that readers have shared with me. I know about safety as I teach home safety as part of my family resource management curriculum with Purdue Extension. This week’s column is quite humbling to write because I know a disaster can really happen to anyone.

It is important to review some basic kitchen safety tips as many of you will be cooking for the holidays. One of the first rules I share with people is to think and use common sense. I read and hear about problems with rugs in front of stoves and kitchen sinks. These rugs must have good rubber backs to prevent someone from catching their shoe or toe and tripping. I know they are attractive and can provide some comfort if you are standing at the sink or stove a long time, but from a safety perspective they are not a good idea.

Now to the stove – I remember being taught to always make sure the handles of skillets, pots and pans are always turned to the inside toward the stove or countertop. This prevents them from being bumped or turned if someone goes by. There are also many opportunities for people to be burnt or start fires from hot stove burners after they are shut off. This can happen with gas, electric coil burner, glass top, and any of the newer burners.

There are also kitchen safety hazards with microwave ovens. Accidents can happen when plastic items are used in the microwave that were not engineered to be used to heat food. I don’t recommend any plastic being used in the microwave. I suggest you cover dishes with glass casserole lids, a plate or a saucer. Glass covers can easily be placed in the dishwasher or handwashed.

Another safety concern with microwave cooking is steam burns. To prevent this, always plan to remove the lid away from you. Be careful with heating anything with oil or grease in it. Many hot salad dressings can be made in the microwave. Just be careful and use only the medium-high setting and check the food often. Use caution when you stir the ingredients as oil and other ingredients can often make a little explosion and hit your face. Place a cup or bowl on a saucer so if the food runs over the mess is on the dish instead of in the microwave.

So now onto what happened in my kitchen and what I don’t want you to do. I had prepared food for a program I was doing later that evening. I had made butternut squash soup in the crockpot. I had a cheeseball, apples for tasting, a flavored cider with orange juice concentrate and fresh popped popcorn on the stove to be flavored with butter and honey at the program. I made time to clean up the kitchen so I wouldn’t have to do that when I got home.

I used my hot pads several times as I heated the butternut squash in the microwave, mashed it and then transferred it to the crockpot. I also used them on the Dutch oven lid and side handles when I popped the popcorn. I used then again to transfer the popcorn to a large bowl and place the Dutch oven back on the stove. By nature I’m not a tidy person, but I am when it comes to hot pads. I always put them in the drawer to the right of the stove. As I was carrying the prepared food to the car, I thought I smelled something hot like plastic so I looked around but could not find anything so I left.

Well, when I returned home three hours later I pulled in the garage and could hear the smoke alarm. When I went upstairs I could smell a strong plastic smell and the house was full of a gray haze. The countertop above the drawer where the hot pads were was very hot and the chocolate candy sitting on it had melted. I opened the drawer and three cotton terry cloth hot pads were ash and the silicone hot pads inside were black. I removed the drawer and carried it outside, removed the glass casserole lids and dumped the drawer. The inside front of the drawer was very black right where the hot pads had been.

I don’t know if the hot pads were just very hot when I put them away or if I had touched the hot pads on the burner and wasn’t aware. The bottom line is that I should have checked when I first smelled the odor before leaving home. Most of all, I will not be putting hot pads back in the drawer until I know for sure they are at room temperature. 

Mary Ann Lienhart Cross is health and human sciences educator with Purdue Extension Elkhart County. She can be reached at 574-533-0554 or

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