Staying Safe on the Job

The December 2013 issue of School Nutrition focuses on staying safe on and off the job, and there’s so much valuable content on the topic of safety that we couldn’t fit it all in our print issue. This article on practical tips for staying safe when working in the school kitchen is just one piece of online-exclusive content that accompanies this issue.

Working in a school kitchen provides you with daily opportunities to interact with students and some great co-workers, but it also comes with personal safety risks. No one wants to see a colleague experience a frightening or painful accident in the kitchen. “We emphasize training in personal safety to protect our most valuable resource, our school nutrition professionals,” says Allison Bradford, SNS, child nutrition programs director for Anoka-Hennepin Schools, Anoka, Minn.

Lora Novak, assistant school nutrition director for Gwinnett County School District, Suwanee, Ga., agrees. “As more new hires come into school kitchens with little or no food preparation or serving experience, they need guidance and frequent reminders about potential risks in their work environment with resulting accidents,” she says. “Giving feedback about the danger of risky practices resulting in accidents reminds employees [to be aware] of their safety and that of others.” It’s also important to note that accidents can result in significant bottom-line costs to the operation, particularly in terms of managing resources to fill in for a missing employee, as well as the documentation time related to Workers’ Compensation claims.

As you head into a new year after the holiday break, take some time to review some tips on avoiding common injuries that might occur in a school kitchen and check out some accompanying resources for additional information (listed at the end of this article).

Burns from exposed skin touching oven surfaces or hot pots, pans and utensils are common. But foodservice-related burns can come from a variety of sources—you also need to protect against hot liquids, including water, that splash and steam, such as from steamers and dishwashers.

To reduce the likelihood that you or a team member will receive a burn in your kitchen:

  • Always wear or use hand protection, such as heavy, dry oven mitts, when handling hot pots and cleaning gloves when using chemicals. Never use an apron, towel or dishcloth as a substitute for an oven mitt.
  • Destroy old mitts and pot holders that have worn thin or have holes.
  • Ensure that staff uniforms are made out of flame-retardant materials.
  • Make sure that the handles of pots and other cookware are turned toward the center of the range.
  • Remove pot lids in a direction away from your body.
  • Avoid overfilling cooking pots and pans.
  • Ask for help when moving hot, heavy pans or pots.
  • Make sure a safe path exists before transporting hot foods.
  • Warn fellow employees when you place something hot near them.
  • Always use the correct utensils, such as kitchen forks, tongs, ladles and turners, whenever handling hot foods and liquids.
  • Dishwasher doors should be cracked before you open them all the way. Open the door slightly first, especially when the machine is in the middle of a cycle, to prevent hot water and steam from splashing out and causing injury.
  • Allow equipment to cool before cleaning.

A typical day in a school kitchen means that everyone is moving quickly to get everything done within the time constraints. Add in the continual handling of foods and liquids and you have a recipe for slips and falls—if you don’t take care.

  • Employees should wear non-skid, slip-resistant shoes with closed heels and toes. If your operation does not already have an approved style of shoe that you can order or does not provide shoes for employees, ask your supervisor or director about appropriate styles to purchase.
  • Make sure shoelaces are tied at all times.
  • Clean up water, food and grease spills immediately.
  • Pick up what you drop. Wipe up what you spill.
  • Walk—don’t run—in the foodservice area, even when you are in a hurry.
  • Place “wet floor” or “caution” signs on slippery or wet floors.
  • Stand on a sturdy ladder or step stool to get out-of-reach items. Never use boxes or lower shelves as an alternative!
  • Remove clutter from aisles and pathways.
  • Close cabinet doors and drawers.
  • Cover containers when moving them to avoid spills.
  • Open—and approach—swinging doors carefully.
  • Make sure the edges of floor mats are not curled up or wrinkled.
  • Report major or ongoing hazards to your manager immediately.

Knives are an essential tool in foodservice prep—but their presence requires continual vigilance. And be mindful of other sources of cuts, such as broken ceramic or glassware, box cutters, the sharp ends of open cans/tops and so on.

  • Never plunge hands blindly into a sink full of water or soapsuds. A knife or other sharp object could cause a serious cut.
  • Do not stack breakables with metal items such as pots and pans.
  • If glass breaks, clean it up right away. Use a brush and dust pan and put the pieces in a special container or tough bag that will protect others who might have to handle it.
  • Discard all cracked or chipped dishware.
  • Concentrate on what you are doing when using a knife.
  • Use sharp knives. Dull knives cause more accidents because they are harder to work with and require more pressure.
  • Always use a cutting board. Never cut or slice foods while holding them in your hand.
  • Keep knives away from the edge of the counter.
  • Step out of the way if a knife is dropped. Do not try to catch it.
  • Use a knife for its intended purpose, not as a substitute for a can opener, screwdriver, staple remover or box opener.
  • Store knives in a knife rack or special drawer when not in use. Don’t throw them in a drawer with other small objects or leave them lying around.

Most foodservice employees may be required to do some heavy lifting of boxes, bins, bags and food containers. To avoid strains, follow this proper lifting technique:

  1. Stand close to the item you are preparing to lift. Get a firm footing.
  2. Bend your knees, not your back.
  3. Grasp the object firmly, and hold it close to you.
  4. Use leg muscles for lifting, not back muscles. Lift smoothly as you straighten your legs.
  5. Make sure you can see where you are going. Turn by moving your feet, not by twisting your body.
  6. Ease the object into its resting place.
  7. Always get help when moving heavy loads or lifting objects over your head. Use carts whenever possible.

Repetitive Motion Injuries 
Repetitive Motion Injury (RMI), also known as Musculoskeletal Injury (MSI), Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) or Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorder (WMSD), can be caused by:

  • posture (prolonged awkward postures or sitting in a fixed position);
  • force (use of excessive force that overloads muscles and tendons); or
  • repetition (use of the same muscles and joints over and over again while doing a repetitive task).

Symptoms of RMIs include pain, numbness, tingling and clumsiness or loss of grip in fingers, wrists, hands, shoulders and neck. To avoid RMI, follow these suggested work practices:

  • Organize your work in such a way that your body is in an unstrained, comfortable position with your arms and forearms relaxed.
  • Position your hand and wrist comfortably.
  • Use two hands instead of one hand as often as possible.
  • Maintain tools in good working condition to avoid the need for excessive force.
  • Wear gloves and use tool handles with a good grip.
  • Don’t overstretch yourself. Reach only as high as is comfortable for you.
  • When reaching down, support your body with one arm.
  • When reaching forward, move your whole body, not just your arms.
  • Push rather than pull whenever possible. You can push twice as much as you can pull.
  • Vary your movements; switch tasks at regular intervals.
  • Ask your doctor for hand, wrist and upper body exercises.

General Safety Guidelines
Managers should be vigilant about following safety guidelines and reinforcing key safety precautions, because employees will learn from this behavior. “Do what I do” is an important pair with “Do what I say.”

  • Make it a practice to announce your presence—“I’m behind you!” or “Coming through!”—when walking through the kitchen. This helps to boost awareness when many people are moving around a small space.
  • Promptly report any injury. Serious infection can result from even a minor scratch.
  • Hold regular safety trainings on topics such as using chemicals, the safe use of knives and how to use a fire extinguisher can be very helpful. Refresher trainings often serve as good reminders, even to those who think they are proficient at all the steps.
  • Make safety a part of your job descriptions, hiring procedures and performance evaluations. Gwinnett County’s Lora Novak explains the procedure used in her district: “We assisted a physical therapist in developing a [hiring assessment] that includes repetitive lifting, pushing, pulling and walking on a treadmill at the levels required and noted on the job description. The physical therapist identified appropriate repetitive routine tasks performed by most food assistants in the kitchen to develop a proper evaluation.” She explains that this evaluation helps applicants to understand the level of activity expected for the position while also assuring those doing the hiring that applicants can meet the minimal job requirements without harm to themselves or others because of an inability to lift and move objects properly or perform other essential job-related tasks.

In an environment with so many moving pieces, people and equipment, anything can and does happen, so make sure that you and your team members are always on the lookout for ways to minimize risks. Operators interviewed for this article reiterated the importance of regularly assessing the work environment with a fresh eye and re-evaluating anything that can be changed or moved to provide for a safer environment.

Expect the unexpected! One interviewee cited a tall open cart with wheels that was full of food trays ready to be baked that tipped over on top of an employee, resulting in serious injuries. (Lesson: Moving tall racks is a two-person job.) Another example was an employee who caught her foot on the edge of a work table and shattered her ankle; she is still receiving Workers’ Compensation eight years later. (Lesson: Slow down and be aware of where all parts of your body are at all times.)

Avoid the tendency for complacency while performing your daily activities—and just as important, don’t rush. Beyond that, treat safety in the kitchen “just like driving a car, operating large machinery or even taking a vacation—keep in mind personal safety, keep a keen eye out for hazards, stay educated and watch out for others,” states Karen Johnson, SNS, child nutrition director for Yuma (Ariz.) Elementary School District.


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