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Keven Moore: Relax ‘This is Us’ fans, ‘crock pots’ are generally safe — but here are some precautions

For those you who are “This Is Us” fans or in my case an involuntary forced viewer (by my wife), we were all a bit troubled to see the old hand-me-down crock pot catch the Pearson family kitchen on fire that eventually takes Jack’s life.

Last week’s episode takes place during their Pittsburg Steeler Super Bowl Sunday, and Rebecca makes chili in an old used Crock-Pot that was gifted to the Pearson family by an older local neighbor who didn’t want to throw it away.

Yes it’s true that frugal people don’t usually take financial advice from broke people, but we all need to be cautious when accepting old hand-me down cooking appliances.

Remember this one? It has been relegated to the Smithsonian.

As the day ends, Jack wipes down and cleans up the kitchen and turns off the Crock-Pot. But as we observed from one of the show’s flashbacks — the switch is faulty. To most of us viewers we then watched in disbelief as the slow cooker turns itself back on, causing an electrical short to spark a nearby towel. The flames then rapidly become an inferno, catching the rest of the house on fire.

To set the stage in a previous episode the writers had shown us that the Pearson’s smoke detector was missing its battery — obviously forecasting the tragedy that was soon to come.

Crock Pots which is brand name for a slow cooker, have long been a source for concern for fires for most families, but after last Tuesday night’s episode of this “This Is Us” it took on a life of its own, especially on social media.

Unlike some of you I didn’t rush straight to my kitchen and toss my slow cooker into the garbage along with my wife’s drenched Kleenexes. But being an inquisitive Safety & Risk Management professional I decided to do some research to help ease some of the hysteria.

The first slow cooker first appeared in America in 1950 and it was called the “Simmer Crock” made by the Industrial Radiant Heat Corp. The Rival Company bought Naxon in 1970 and reintroduced it under the name “Crock-Pot” in 1971.

These slow cookers later achieved popularity in the US during the 1970s, when many women began to work outside the home. They could start dinner cooking in the morning before going to work and finish preparing the meal in the evening when they came home.

The use of slow cookers continue to rise because many of “on the go” families today just love the convenience of the “set it and forget it” mentality when it comes to preparing meals for families. As a whole slow cookers are generally safe, but we all still need to be mindful of the dangers they pose.

Popular for ease of cooking.

According to a somewhat dated National Fire Protection Association report, slow cookers were involved in an estimated average of 150 reported home structure fires per year from 2007-11, resulting in an average of 10 civilian injuries and $2 million in direct property damage annually.

In terms of accidents, it ranks up there with other smaller household appliances you may find to be that hazardous — like your coffee maker or teapot, food warmer and hotplates, and kettles. According to the NFPA, just 5 percent of house fires started by cooking equipment were caused by a “portable cooking or warming device” like a slow cooker.

However heat levels in slow cookers are typically low enough that other provisions for safety, including close attendance, are not necessary. If the cooking appliance is placed where an unlikely minor overflow will not contact other combustibles, they are pretty darn safe.

The truth is slow cookers exceed all internal testing protocols and all applicable industry safety standards and regulations as verified by independent third-party testing labs. After the backlash from the episode Crock Pot issued a statement that read “. . .for nearly 50 years with over 100 million Crock-Pots sold, we have never received any consumer complaints similar to the fictional events portrayed in last night’s episode. In fact, the safety and design of our product renders this type of event nearly impossible.”

The reality, however, is that small kitchen appliances have come a long way in terms of safety over these past several decades, and you have to work pretty hard to make one catch fire.

Through modern day engineering most of today’s kitchen appliances all have thermal protectors installed, which is a small cylinder on the inside of the device which trips to high heat. According to a recent Popular Science article these small devices — sometimes called thermal cutoffs — work like fuses. When the sensor reaches a certain temperature, it stops the flow of electricity through the circuit. In many small appliances, these cutoffs can’t be reset, so if you’ve ever had a coffee machine or some other device stop working suddenly and forever, it’s possible the thermal protector kicked in and did its job.

While modern appliances are much safer than their decades-old predecessors, it is possible to punish a slow cooker too much. Often times their electrical cords take a beating. The wires in the cord are made up of multiple small conductors. If you bend and break too many of those conductors from coiling or yanking on them, then you have the same amount of current traveling through half the wire, which then creates high resistance and causes the appliance to overheat.

HERE ARE SOME HELPFUL HINTS TO PUT YOU “AT EASE:

Read and Follow Manufacturers Operator’s Manual Instructions – As always, every crock-pot is different and has varying specifications by make and model. Therefore it’s important to follow the manufacturer’s directions and follow all their safety recommendations.

Inspect The Electrical Cord – It’s important to regularly check the slow cooker electrical cord (from the base to the plug). If there’s any sign of wear or tear, it’s probably time to buy a new one. Using a crock-pot with a broken plug or wire is a fire hazard.

Slow cookers come in all shapes and sizes.

Unplug When Not In Use – If you are worried about a Pierson family-like fire, then all you have to do is keep it unplugged when it’s not in use. 

Location, Location, Location – It’s important to keep the slow cooker away from all combustibles to minimize the potential for a fire to spread. You should also keep them away from the edge of countertops and this includes not having the cord dangle off the edge. The closer it is to the edge, the easier it is for a person (or pet) to bump it or knock it over.

Pay Attention To CPSC Recalls – Not every new appliance works flawlessly, which is why recalls happen. But you’re not always guaranteed to hear about a product advisory regarding your device, so go visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission website to see if your slow cooker has been recalled.

Ditch Grandma’s Hand-Me-Down Slow Cooker – There’s no real hard cutoff date for when appliances started to become safer. For instance in the late ‘80s we saw a rash of coffee machine fires thanks to faulty thermostats, which failed to regulate the device’s temperature, even when it was supposed to be off. So, if you have an older slow-cooker it just may be time to go replace them. Today you can find one for as little as $25.

Run A Test – If you are too frugal to toss out that old slow cooker you can apply the water test to determine if it’s in good working order. Fill the crock-pot 2/3 full with tap water (tepid water) and set your crock pot on the low setting. After 8 hours, use a thermometer to check the water’s temperature, which should be at least 185 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Be Safe My Friends

Keven Moore works in risk management services and as an expert witness. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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