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In the United States, there are more than one million restaurant locations, and over 15 million Americans who are employed within the culinary industry. In a video provided by the National Restaurant Association®, the sector reportedly accounts for 10 percent of the total U.S. workforce, and contributed $782.7 billion dollars to the economy in 2015 alone.

The rapid growth and increasing risk for worker injury in the restaurant industry has been emphasized for the past ten years. In one research study by UC Berkeley, “A Menu for Protecting the Health and Safety of Restaurant Workers,” the opportunities to enhance safety for culinary workers are outlined.

In spite of the focus on safety, 87 percent of workers in the United States experienced a moderate to severe workplace injury, and 79 percent of culinary workers indicated that they sustained serious burns on the job. We will discuss the hazards of employment within the restaurant sector, and how employees should proceed after an injury to protect their rights to compensation.

Culinary and Commercial Food Preparation: How Dangerous Is the Job?

Behind the scenes of every restaurant is a team of staff that can range from entry-level or novice sous and executive chefs. Training and experience differentiate between workers who can be engaged in simple cold food preparation – such as salads, appetizers, and desserts – to open flame grilling. Every hazard that exists in a residential kitchen is present in a commercial kitchen, but several factors increase the risk of burn injuries for professional culinary experts.

1. Ergonomic Hazards

The layout and design of work areas and equipment in commercial kitchens is designed first to optimize the speed of food preparation, which is essential in the restaurant industry. However, the layout of a kitchen does not always consider the safety and ergonomic needs of staff. Reaching is common, including over hot surfaces, which increases the risk of thermal and contact burns.

2. Worker Fatigue

It is not uncommon for kitchen staff to work longer than the standard eight-hour shift, particularly during busy holiday seasons or on weekends, when restaurants receive the most traffic. It is also typical for most culinary workers to start at 3:00 p.m. and work a twelve-hour shift. The National Restaurant Association® reported in 2016 that 9 out of 10 American restaurants employ fewer than fifty staff, which contributes to a high-pressure environment for owners and workers, and one with significant daily physical demand that can increase the risk of accidents.

3. Commercial Equipment

Large and heavy utensils, industrial-sized mixers, and pots and pans are a constant hazard in commercial kitchens. Optimizing the need to cook food for large amounts of people, the oversized equipment can be awkward to maneuver and heavy, which increases the risk of contact burns and serious injuries from boiling water or cooking oil.

4. Overcrowding

A commercial kitchen is a busy place, and in addition to the culinary staff, you have traffic from owners, managers, and service staff who need to access the area to deliver food. Both the increased distraction and proximity of support staff in preparation areas can increase the risk of burns and other serious injuries.

5. Slip and Fall Risks

Despite the presence of mandatory “no-slip” rubber mats and other safety equipment, there is a high prevalence of slip and fall injuries for commercial kitchen workers. Some of the most life-threatening burn injuries can occur when a worker is carrying a large container of heated food or water. When they fall, the result is often second or third-degree burns to large areas of the body, including the face, neck, and arms.

Coercion and Reporting Practices in the Restaurant Industry

Culinary workers may feel that the injury is not serious enough to warrant filling out a safety report. In other cases, where job security is an issue, the worker may not wish to jeopardize his or her job and income; they may feel that they may lose their job if they report it. This is common in workplaces that have a history of safety infractions, and workers can be threatened or pressured by management to underreport any injury (small or large) that may result in a safety inspection or fines.

Restaurant cooks in general do not earn a high-salary and are paid low, considering the workplace hazards that they encounter daily. In 2014, the average salary was $22,490, while the top ten percent of cooks earned only $31,940 per year. Cooks are not always guaranteed hours the way that salaried employees are, which can contribute to hiding injuries to avoid off-time or reduced scheduling.

Maximizing Compensation for a Workplace Injury

If the worker is facing a hostile management situation, where the owner or operator wishes to dispute the injury or claim, the onus is on the worker to document the accident for legal purposes. There are three important steps:

1. Seek Immediate Medical Evaluation

All injuries require documentation and treatment by a medical professional. This can be an emergency walk-in clinic, hospital, or from a family physician. Workers should indicate to the health care provider how, when, and under what circumstances the injury occurred in the workplace. Medical teams are trained to take photo’s and create records that can be used legally to document your injury.

2. Make Notes Right Away

While waiting for medical treatment for your burn, fall injury, or abrasion, take a moment to document all the circumstances that led to the accident. Record the time and day, and the activities that you were engaged in, and make a list of staff who witnessed either the accident or the extent of your injury before you left to seek medical attention. These details are important to file for compensation benefits, as well as for personal injury legal suits.

3. Avoid Making Statements or Signing Waivers

In some situations, workers have been asked to sign a waiver after an accident, or document a statement for the employer. Filling out a form to report a burn injury caused by an accident is sufficient. Other details should be avoided until the worker has spoken to a legal expert.

The laws regarding workplace injuries and compensation vary by state, but the U.S. Department of Labor directs that workers are entitled to support when they have been injured on the job. For more information, and to learn under what circumstances an employee is qualified, read “Injuries and Illnesses Covered by Workers’ Compensation.”