Chefs have a responsibility to run their kitchens safely, whether the establishment is a Michelin-starred restaurant, an upscale steakhouse, a diner, or a food truck. By their natures, kitchens are notoriously dangerous places full of hot surfaces, slippery liquids, sharp knives and tools, heavy pans, and busy people dancing a seemingly unchoreographed ballet of daily meal preparation.
While each chef and restaurant manager is legally responsible for knowing and following all the local, state, and federal statutes, keeping a few tips in mind could keep everybody in and around the kitchen safer. Nobody wants to see a colleague hurt, particularly not due to a preventable accident.
Hazards While Moving Around the Kitchen
Most commercial kitchens are compact areas. Ideally, they’re set up in zones or stations to improve efficiency and minimize the opportunity for collisions. Even so, certain physical hazards can exist. Collisions, spills, heat stress, and body fatigue are all possible in a crowded environment.
Kitchens are notorious for spills, which can be water or oil-based. Many commercial brigades use slip-resistant mats. While kitchen staff must clean spills as soon as possible, wearing non-slip chef shoes remains crucial to preventing slip and fall accidents. Choosing shoes with breathable, easy-to-clean, water-repellent uppers can also help prevent burns in case of splashes.
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Given the long, demanding shifts that chefs face daily, there’s more to choosing a shoe than just a slip-resistant sole. Anecdotally, there seems to be a strong correlation between the long hours of standing and developing chef’s foot, or hallux rigidus, a degenerative arthritic stiffening on the first metatarsal joint of the big toe. The condition requires more study, but preliminary results seem to indicate that choosing shoes with roomier toe boxes and more rigid soles might slow the progression, even in those predisposed to the condition.
Obstacles and equipment, extension cords or loose carpeting improperly taped down, or damaged flooring can also cause trip hazards for restaurant personnel and patrons. Beware of poor lighting conditions, which may obscure steps or other trip hazards.
Communicating properly while moving and encouraging a repetitive response can prevent collisions, spills, and other mishaps. Kitchen personnel should always inform others when moving from their designated stations by announcing their proximity to others. Saying things like “Corner,” “Behind,” “On your left,” or “On your right” lets coworkers know what to expect. Hearing it repeated back lets the original speaker know it’s safe to proceed. Adding modifiers like “Hot behind,” “Open oven,” or “Sharp on your left” gives colleagues critical details to help them stay safe by avoiding specific hazards.
Personnel may face another potential injury danger when removing and carrying hot, heavy pans from the oven or stove. Supervisors assign individuals to bend and lift these heavy, steaming pans in most kitchens, risking back injuries and spills. Each executive chef may need to evaluate the potential safety advantages of using a team lift concept.
Cuts from knives, slicers, planes, mandolins, blenders, and broken glassware and plates account for most kitchen injuries. Most chefs will concede that dull knives are far more dangerous than sharp ones. It pays to keep blades sharpened and handle them with care.
Burns from fryolators, ovens, stovetops, pans, and hot liquids comprise the next biggest category of kitchen injuries. Wearing long-sleeved chef jackets may help, but workers still need to use dry oven mitts or pot holders, position pan and skillet handles away from the front of the stove, and always announce when they are carrying hot items.
Chemical burns from hot peppers or caustic cleaning fluids might also pose a danger. If the restaurant uses liquid nitrogen, freeze burns could also become a concern.
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Flash fires are a potential hazard in any commercial kitchen. Grease traps, hoods, open flames, dish towels or pot holders exposed to a flame or open element, fryers, or even clouds of flour exposed to a spark or flame can ignite.
If a grease fire ignites in a pan on the stove, quickly put on an oven mitt before sliding a lid on the pan and turning off the stove. A quick-thinking chef can deprive a pan-based blaze of oxygen. Never use water or an extinguisher on a pan fire because it will spread flaming grease droplets.
If an oven blaze ignites, leave the door closed, turn off the oven, and call the fire department as a precaution. Don’t open the oven door until after the flames completely burn out.
Maintaining and cleaning equipment regularly and keeping a clean and orderly kitchen are the best preventative measures against fires and most accidents. Encouraging staff to care for themselves and their colleagues and developing a strong, communicative team atmosphere might also play a significant role.