Monday, September 28, 2009

What really burns

Mentioning that I was the recipient of a hot coffee burn at the drive-thru where I am a "regular" is embarrassing. Following the widely publicized case in the mid 1990's, the topic of "hot coffee burns" has been a polarizing topic. I try to stay away from issues like these, being more of a lover than a fighter in the war about what--from an evidenced-based standpoint--actually makes people safer.

But since the coffee actually fell into my lap on Saturday morning, I'll take it as a sign that I'm supposed to say something about the issue of human error and organizational response as it relates to the potential for hot liquid to spill on people who choose to purchase these products in a drive-thru.

I noticed that the lid to the cup on my coffee was slightly askew when I removed it from the drive-thru shelf where the server had placed it. I thought I could reseat it myself since the visible defect was only a 1/2" rise in what appeared to be an otherwise good seal. Unfortunately, what I would represent as gentle pressure downward on a paper cup not supported by anything except my left hand caused the cup to change shape. The lid popped off and nearly half of my large brewed coffee, with cream, hit my right thigh. It felt really bad for a few moments, the kind of bad that makes the back of your throat ache as the acute pain subsides.

The server on duty on Saturday frequently prepares my morning coffee, and the lid has always been placed correctly in the past. As I struggled to get myself back together and finish the transaction, she passed me napkins and gave me a new cup of coffee, appearing somewhat distraught. I'm thinking this is pure human error. A human will not seat a lid correctly 100% of the time. A customer may not know that the obvious corrective action of reseating a small defect will cause the cup to go askew and the coffee to spill. So I'm thinking it would be helpful for customers to know that it's safer to let the server fix a poorly seated lid than mess with it in the car. Maybe a sign in the drive-thru window saying something like, "If you notice the lid on a hot beverage is crooked, please let us fix it for you." I live in an area where a lot of people speak Spanish. So maybe the sign should be in both English and Spanish.

Since the server is a pleasant young woman and she looks kind of worried, I say to her, "I'm not interested in suing over a hot coffee spill here. But I am interested in making sure this doesn't happen to someone else." That's when she replied, "Oh, well it happens all the time. You should have seen the last lady- it was an extra hot cup of tea. We've been having trouble with these lids for awhile."

"Have you shared that with your manager?" I ask. "Oh yes," she replied. "They know all about it."

On Sunday, I return for my morning coffee. A different server is on duty. I mention the Saturday spill to her as I go through the drive-thru. I'm wondering if the cup problem is as widespread as Saturday's server had implied or if she may have felt more individually culpable than I had intended. She confirms the cups have not been performing well and that "the company" is trying to get better ones.

The red spot faded in a few hours, I have no compelling reason to revisit this issue. Except I know that by reporting a problem, reasonable people can take steps to prevent the problem from reoccurring. Customers can try to be more careful. You can hang a sign to point out risky conditions that can't be minimized in other ways. But those are low level risk-reduction strategies. Here's a more effective way to prevent burns: Cups that hold hot liquids should have lids that fit. They should be able to be manipulated into position by average workers and passed through the drive-thru window with a very low failure rate, if a business chooses to sell hot liquids in this fashion.

Sunday's cup was defect-free. And today's cup is fueling this post.

I'm just trying to help prevent someone else from getting burned.


Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful story so american and being European there are 2 options:
1, add another sign - we can drink your hot beverage to eliminate the risk of burning yourself
2, step out of the car and have the coffe insdie.

Barbara Olson, MS, RN, FISMP said...

Yes, I do write from a uniquely American point of view. (Although you should be careful in assuming that I am the "average American.") If you follow along, you'll find my Swedish sensibilities often shine through. Welcome! Can I get you some coffee? :-)

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