Recipe For Disaster

by Katie Lee

A busy restaurant can provide a recipe for high work comp premiums.

By Matt Mallory

According to statistics put forth by the National Restaurant Association, there are over 1 million restaurants in the United States employing more than 14 million workers. They range from fast food to fine dining, from catering companies to institutional foodservice. But they all have one thing in common: their employees are constantly navigating a Workers’ Comp minefield. Let’s face it, the kitchen is a pretty dangerous place; knives are sharp, pans are hot, floors are slippery, dishes are heavy. There’s also the added element of a ticking clock, as every customer wants his or her food right away. Unfortunately, speed and a hot fryer do not make a good combination.

The restaurant environment and the specific job that you do within a restaurant determine the risks you face. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has prepared a detailed summary of some of the major risks faced by workers at fast food restaurants and casual eating establishments. To some extent, these are risks that exist across the entire field and are dangers that every single restaurant employee could encounter. These risks include:

• Injuries caused by lifting or balancing heavy trays or containers of dirty dishes.

• Injuries caused by reaching across tables to serve or clear.

• Injuries caused by lifting and moving tables and chairs to provide customer seating.

• Injuries resulting from workplace violence, including robbery.

• Burn or scald injuries from the stove, dishwasher, oven or other appliances, such as deep fryers.

• Burns or other injuries caused by faulty electrical appliances or damaged/worn electrical cords or wiring.

• Exposure to hazardous chemicals, toxins or car exhaust fumes.

When an industry is built for speed — time is money and tables need to be turned over — it’s no wonder injuries are prevalent, particularly when you zero in on the fast food level, where 28,000 teens in fast food jobs are rushed to the ER each year with job-related injuries. A perfect example comes courtesy of the website

As a young employee at a major fast food chain, Tom Smith learned early that he would have to be careful with more than just flipping burgers. Although the restaurant enforced strict safety rules, one night while routinely cleaning the grill, Smith didn’t put on the insulated, fireproof gloves provided by the restaurant. When his arm slipped onto the grill, he sustained a nasty burn. “I thought I knew everything about cleaning, that I knew what I was doing, and I didn’t need to wear the gloves,” he recalls.

Cathy Rivas, a college student working for Smith, says that her restaurant shift is great for students because the hours are flexible. On any given day Rivas may clear tables, sweep and mop the floor, scrub the bathroom, cook burgers and fries, and fill orders for soda and coffee. During an 8-hour day, she runs the risk of burning herself on a sizzling grill or fry basket, slipping and falling on a wet floor, or being exposed to harmful chemicals such as cleaning solvents.

The situation is the same wherever young people are employed in the fast food industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, the fast food industry has a troubling safety record. Of the 2.5 million teens working in the restaurant industry, the majority injured on the job are most likely to be working in fast food outlets. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimated that emergency rooms treated about 44,800 injuries suffered by teenage restaurant workers. Of those injuries, an estimated 28,000 — a whopping 63% — took place in hamburger, pizza or other fast food establishments. The NIOSH study also determined that nearly half of the injuries involved hot grease and that more than half of the injuries from falls were caused by wet or greasy floors.

Researchers have also found that teens working in fast food restaurants are six times more likely to be burned than teens working in any other industry. According to the Burn Foundation, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, teens working as fry cooks in fast food restaurants are at special risk for burn injuries. The Burn Foundation also says that burns are likely to occur when workers ignore safety rules, are pressed for time and take shortcuts, or when they become too familiar with their jobs and take unnecessary risks.

Saying the restaurant environment is a dangerous place to work is like saying the Sahara Desert is hot. No press release is needed. The bigger question facing restaurant owners is how to mitigate those injuries and keep their employees from going out on Workers’ Compensation, thus driving up that all-important experience mod — every business’ direct link to higher insurance premiums.

Some preventative measures are obvious, as NIOSH and other industry experts are quick to point out:

• Prevent burn injuries by providing employees with appropriate gloves and scrapers and other cleaning tools with handles.

• Allow hot grease to cool before moving it.

• Wherever possible, use slip-resistant flooring to prevent falls and keep floors dry and well maintained.

• Wear non-skid shoes to prevent slipping.

• Extinguish hot oil or grease fires by sliding a lid over the container.

• Avoid reaching over or across hot surfaces and burners.

• Don’t plug in electrical equipment while touching a wet or damp surface.

But truth be told, the solution goes a little deeper than non-skid shoes. A lot of it starts with opening the lines of communication between the executive level, management level and the workers themselves. 

We understand it’s a fast-paced environment. But that’s no excuse for everyone not to be on the same page with the mission of increased worker safety.

I recently did some work for a client that owned and operated multiple restaurants. When the worker injury count started to skyrocket, I was shocked to discover that nobody was talking to anybody; finance didn’t talk to operations, operations had little interaction with the kitchen, and as a result turnover was massive and safety training fell by the wayside. We finally structured a plan for frequent meetings, just to get everyone on the same page. We also set forth to raise the training bar with both instructional DVD and hands-on training. As a result, injuries decreased over time.

You must communicate with workers that their safety is your Number 1 priority. Almost every restaurant, particularly fine-dining establishments, has that moment before doors open to meet with the staff. There is no better time to emphasize what to do and not do, that at the end of the night you want everyone to go home in good condition.

Safety is the key word, starting with something as simple as non-slip shoes. A small investment to keep workers safe and on-the-job, particularly when studies by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) show that for every $1 spent in safety programs, businesses can save between $4 to $6 from costs associated with injuries and fatalities. And don’t think that throwing a Wet Floor sign in front of a puddle is a substitute for talking with your workers about safety.

I came across an article one day about a worker who knew that he could increase his tips by serving more customers, so he worked as fast as possible. The restaurant was very busy one evening when another server unintentionally dropped a tray, spilling water on the floor. The supervisor had a kitchen worker promptly mop up the spill, but the area was still slick. The supervisor also placed several “Caution” signs in the area. This worker decided getting to his customers was more important than the risk the slick area posed. Ignoring the signs, he hurried through the slick area, fell and broke his right leg.

Despite disregarding the signs, and his common sense, Alex was still entitled to full workers’ compensation benefits because, the courts ruled, his intention was to get to his customers, not to slip and fall. If Alex’s intention was to disregard the signs knowing he would be injured, or if he deliberately took advantage of the spill and purposely slipped and fell so he could collect benefits, his work accident claim would likely be denied.

There’s little denying that slip-and-fall accidents are one of the most common sources of injury in the restaurant industry. Which is why there are actually organizations out there doing research to help prevent such accidents, like the National Floor Safety Institute (NFSI) in Southlake, Texas. This group monitors the level of slip resistance in restaurants. The NFSI offers many helpful tips, from making sure mats are put down on clean and dry surfaces (“If it’s wet underneath, the mat acts like a surfboard”) to color-coating your cleaning tools and not using the same mop in the front of the house that you use in the kitchen (“You’ll just be spreading the grease around”). A 24-unit chain in the Southwest starting paying attention to what the NFSI had to say, and as a result the chain cut its insurance liability claims in half and slashed incurred costs by 90%.

The key to driving down injuries and subsequently driving down insurance costs is to follow up and follow through. Tell your bartenders that rushing down to the end of the bar on an ice-strewn floor to serve an impatient customer, especially while you are holding the knife you just cut lemons with, is unacceptable. That he or she is more important to the company than whether somebody gets his gin-and-tonic in the next 20 seconds. Because if your workers ever think, for even a second, that you believe your profits are more important than their safety, then you have just put together a recipe for increased insurance costs that are sure to be very hard to swallow.


— Matt Mallory is vice president and principal with the Mallory Agency in LaGrange, Georgia, a national property and casualty insurance and risk management brokerage. He has been trained and certified by the Institute of WorkComp Professionals as a Certified and Master WorkComp Advisor. He can be reached at [email protected].

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