Guy Fieri like any good chef knows that kitchen fires are a key source of restaurant workplace injuries

Guy Fieri, like any good chef, knows that kitchen fires are a key source of restaurant workplace injuries.

How to avoid unwanted OSHA scrutiny of your restaurant

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It is easy to have a fairy-tale vision of working in a restaurant, a Willy Wonka-like world where cooks, bartenders and waitresses all dance around smiling and stirring huge vats of chocolate and sprinkling sugary goodness all over culinary delights.

But working in a restaurant is anything but sugar and spice and everything nice. It can also be a dangerous place, filled with razor-sharp cutting utensils, slippery floors, super-heated liquids and bodies moving at lightning speed in a confined area. It’s the type of hazardous environment that is a magnet for both the Occupational Safety and Hazards Administration (OSHA) and workers’ compensation authorities. And when OSHA comes calling, and they will, you can bet they will not be looking for a Golden Ticket. What they will be looking for are violations in an environment prone to such possibilities, all of which could result in workplace injuries, whether it’s in a four-star restaurant or a quick-service chain. Among the most common injuries they are looking result from:

• lifting or balancing heavy trays
• lifting and moving tables and chairs to provide customer seating
• burns from the stove, dishwasher, oven or other appliances, such as deep fryers
• burns caused by faulty electrical appliances or damaged/worn electrical cords or wiring
• exposure to hazardous chemicals, toxins or car exhaust fumes
• repetitive motion injuries such as strains, sprains and bulging discs
• overexertion injuries, including injuries to the back, shoulders and neck
• broken bones, usually resulting from slip and falls
• sharp objects resulting in cuts and lacerations

All or any of the above injuries by themselves could prompt an OSHA visit. If you have ever been visited by OSHA then you are well aware that you need to be a lot more prepared than offering the compliance officer (CO) the “Special of the Day” and hoping for the best. OSHA prioritizes inspections based on imminent danger, catastrophes and fatalities, worker complaints/referrals, targeted inspections and follow-up inspections.

As devastating as it can be, an OSHA visit is only the tip of the iceberg — albeit an iceberg worthy of bringing down the Titanic. A succession of workplace injuries will also accelerate your insurance costs to new heights, causing your workers’ compensation premiums (and experience mod) to soar into the stratosphere, to the point where you find yourself calculating how many entrees you have to move in the course of a day just to pay for this month’s premium. Only to discover that nobody is that hungry and the next thing you know you are out of business.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Running a successful restaurant is the ability to anticipate things before they happen (how much meat should I order for the upcoming week, how much waitstaff do I need for a busy Saturday night, do I really need to offer goose liver pate as an appetizer this week since I haven’t sold any in a month?). And it’s the same for reducing possible workers’ compensation claims. You do this by improving your risk profile, which can only be accomplished by anticipating and eliminating as much risk as possible. Fail to do so and you will quickly find yourself shopping for new workers’ compensation insurance quotes year after year, to the point that the underwriters see a pattern (and not a good one). Think of it as constantly applying for numerous credit cards to pay off your existing maxed-out cards.

The key is to think safety, starting from senior management all the way down to the people bussing tables. Your employees must see your stone-cold commitment to a safe working environment, which means doing more than just giving them the proper footwear and pamphlets on the proper technique to lift a tray of dishes. Watch for the red flags: How does the kitchen and wait staff move around, and is there enough space to do their job without it looking like an Atlanta Falcons’ training camp? Is the work area floor dry and free of obstacles? Is the bar area safe enough for at least two people to move horizontally without crashing in to each other? And is all broken glass behind the bar removed quickly and safely before it accidentally winds up in the ice machine and become a needle in a haystack to find?

Tips from OSHA

However, sometimes it all comes down to something as simple as the design of the restaurant itself.  Here are some suggestions courtesy of your good friends at OSHA on how the design of your restaurant can go a long way in reducing workplace injuries:

In the kitchen:

• Buy countertops and cutting surfaces that can be adjusted to the right height for different workers.
• Buy dish racks and refrigerators that are easy to reach. Your “power range” is from your hips to your chest.
• Limit the depth of refrigerators to about 18 inches.
• Install dumbwaiters to transfer food products between floors.
• Install sinks that are at the height of most workers’ hips. This helps prevent strain in dishwashing.
• Design aisles in the kitchen area that are at least four (4) feet wide. This is very important between workstations and the grill, oven or stove.
• Buy hand trucks and conveyors to move products in and trash out.
• Install shelves for runners to pick up food from cooks that are in the “power range”.
• Buy rolling stairs with rails on both sides to reach items on high shelves.
• Buy thick rubber mats for use when kneeling.
• Make sure that all the equipment, utensils, pots and pans needed in the kitchen are within reach of the shortest worker.

In the front of the house:

• Install coat racks at chest height.
• Install computer workstations for ordering that are adjustable with touchscreens.
• Install lights at ordering computer work stations with dimmers that direct light upward, toward the ceiling.
• Install menu boxes at chest height.
• Install storage space for glassware, dishes and cutlery from hip to chest height.
• Buy bar refrigerators that are from hip height to chest height.
• Install hip-height bar sinks and ice storage at bars.
• Install alcohol bottle storage that is between workers’ hip and shoulder height.
• Design at the bar is important, too. The distance between the bartender and customer should measure 22 inches or less.

Workers in the restaurant should:

• Store heavy and frequently used items on racks that are no lower than hip height and no higher than chest height.
• Limit very low and overhead storage to items not often used.
• Rather than bending, stooping or kneeling, work at levels between your hips and chest. You should work in your power zone while sweeping the floor. Low brooms will cause you to lean, bend, stoop and reach. Brooms with longer handles help you work more safely. Sit on a low bench or stool for work that needs to be done at ground level. Use tools with longer handles.   

Owners and managers should:

• Create a written safety policy in your handbook. This should address separately the hazards most frequently encountered by employees. Work rules must meet or exceed OSHA standards. Work rules need to be in writing and be distributed to all.
• Communicate the rules to employees. Ensure management is on board and all new employees are properly trained prior to starting. Implement continued training safety and establish safety committed, view vendor demos and educate workers on most frequently encountered hazards.
• Take steps to discover violations. Oversee safety inspections, walk-throughs and audits. Watch for hazards or rule violations. Do periodic safety self-inspections.
• Maintain discipline. Enforce and document violations. Implement written discipline programs that ensure employees know they can be disciplined for violation of work rules. Ensure supervisors know they can be punished for failing to discipline an employee for violating the work rules. Document and track disciplinary actions and verbal warnings, and make sure employees are aware when other employees are disciplined for violating work rules.

Eventually OSHA will find their way to your location, preferably just on a routine inspection and not because of some catastrophic workplace injury involving hot soup. But by using the information we’ve outlined above you will survive your next OSHA visit because you will have substantially reduced your risk profile. And by doing so you will have created that much-needed recipe for continuing your business successfully, profitably and, most importantly, safely. Now that’s food for thought.

Matt Mallory is executive vice president and principal of Mallory Agency, an insurance brokerage and risk management consulting firm located in LaGrange, Ga. Trained by the Institute of WorkComp Professionals as a Certified and Master WorkComp Advisor, he specializes in issues affecting restaurants.

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