Premises liability accidents are costly, both for business owners and insurers. Specific types of businesses are more prone to slip and fall injuries by nature of the production area for staff, or due to the environment used to serve paying customers, which can be full of potential fall hazards.
The food service industry is one of the environments that is most prone to trip, slip and fall injuries – both for staff and for guests and paying customers. What steps do restaurant owners need to follow to reduce injuries and liability? How can they foster a culture of safety in service and in the kitchen, to protect their business from increased insurance premiums and serious civil lawsuits?
How Big is the U.S. Restaurant Industry?
According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), there will be 1.7 million new restaurant jobs created in the U.S. by the year 2026. The NRA data claim that the restaurant industry contributed $782.7 billion in sales from over one million registered restaurant locations in America, and the industry retains 14.4 million skilled and general labor employees, which account for 10 percent of all jobs in the United States.
The restaurant industry remains an important employer for lower skilled workers, offering opportunities for full or part-time employment for students and adults who require flexible scheduling, evening, and weekend work (during peak service times).
In fact, consider the following:
- Fifty percent of all Americans have worked in the restaurant industry at one point in their life.
- One out of every three Americans got their “first job” in a restaurant.
- Women now account for 56 percent of managers and supervisors in food preparation and customer service within the restaurant industry. Black women accounted for 15 percent of the managers and Hispanic women accounted for 21 percent of supervisors and managers.
- Did you know that 40 percent of restaurants from 2007 to 2012 were owned by women? The number of restaurants owned by Hispanic women increased by 51 percent in 2012, and the industry remains a strong employer of ethnic minorities both in labor and management roles.
What Kind of Worker Injuries Are Most Common in Restaurants?
The National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA) was created in 1996 to provide resources, research, and to suggest safety improvement and laws to protect workers. NORA is also responsible for setting safety and health goals for the food service industry and continuing education for restaurant owners, managers, and workers.
When reviewing risk of personal injury, either as a patron or as a worker in the restaurant industry, safety hazards are categorized into three main types of causes:
- Safety Hazards
Within a kitchen are hundreds of appliances, tools, and surfaces that can quickly cause physical harm – from the use and storage of knives, to heated implements like ovens or open flame grills. Slippery floors are a chronic workplace hazard in most restaurants, as food spills and hygiene requirements make washing the tile floor a frequent occurrence (increasing the risks of slip and fall injuries). Since a kitchen cannot “close” while the floor dries, it makes the fast-paced traffic in and out of the kitchen even more perilous for workers, including wait staff.
- Ergonomic Hazards
Whether working as a food preparation expert, or waiting on tables and delivering food to customers, the restaurant industry is a face-paced and physically demanding place to work. Ergonomic hazards that are common to workers within the restaurant industry include broken bones, strained muscles, and sprains, predominantly of ankle, legs, wrists, and arms. Lower back injuries are also common from prolonged weight lifting (such as food trays, dishes, or moving furnishings like tables and chairs).
- Environmental & Other Hazards
Some food service workers have additional environmental hazards that cause health problems and injuries. Bartenders and waiters, for instance, may be required to work in a bar environment where music is consistently loud (leading to hearing damage over time) or in a casino, where inside smoking is permitted. Staff exposed to stressful environments including loud noise, smoke inhalation, and crowds can develop other health issues.
It is important to note that many facets of employee safety that are environmental may be difficult if not impossible to change for restaurant owners. However, adults who are paid to work in environments that have additional hazards (noise, smoke, crowds) are frequently paid a premium hourly rate (or earn more in tips), which helps to compensate staff better for increased health risks.
Assault is both a criminal and workplace injury issue, for workers within the service industry. From bouncers or security professionals at bars to waitresses, staff members can be exposed to violent situations from patrons and customers. In addition, cashiers and waitresses are at increased risk of violence and assault when they wear aprons for making change and cash handling, or when they operate a cash register.
Operating a Dangerous Dining Room for Your Customers and Staff?
The restaurant industry is highly regulated and inspected both for premises safety and food service and preparation standards. While the nature of food preparation, the speed of service required, and other factors contribute to an increased risk of injuries, there are many ways that restaurants can improve safety and reduce personal injury liability circumstances by fostering a culture of safety.
- Improve lighting in all areas of service and food production, to increase safety.
- Use machine guards and proper storage methods for knives and machines that mix ingredients or cut foods, to reduce abrasions.
- Rotate employees so that jobs which require heavy lifting, carrying, or prolonged positioning (such as standing still at a counter) are shared equally by qualified staff. By alternating high and low resistance jobs, employers can help reduce repetitive injuries, strains, and sprains.
- Allow for adequate rest breaks during shifts to prevent employee fatigue from increasing injury risk factors. This includes avoiding “double shifts” or over-scheduling without sufficient rest days in between.
Restaurant owners and managers may know the operational side of the business, but the individual workers in food preparation and customer service acutely understand the daily demands of their job. Managers should encourage employees to participate in a workplace safety program by providing tips and suggestions to improve safety for both guests and service staff. It can save your business thousands or more per year by reducing accidents, increased insurance premiums, workplace safety fines, and other legal problems. Rely on your staff to help you build a safer place to eat and work; they will appreciate being included and the business’s commitment to worker safety.
Zachary S. Shewmaker is an experienced trial attorney at Van Sant Law, LLC – a personal injury law firm in Atlanta and has been recognized as one of the top young lawyers in Georgia. He has vast experience in cases involving wrongful death, car wrecks, tractor-trailer wrecks, and premises liability.