At 17, Cody Geurin was working the night shift at a Washington fast-food restaurant when one of the pressure cookers began to release steam early in its cycle. Before he could react, the lid burst open, spraying him with eight gallons of scalding oil. "It got my arms, face, and luckily my fry apron first," he says. "As I turned away from the spray, it doused my back. I ripped my rubber gloves off because I could feel them melting to my hands. They were a tiny ball of rubber by the time they hit the floor."
Although recent government data indicate that restaurants are generally safer than many other workplaces, stories such as these are not uncommon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that work-related burns -- a leading cause of occupational injury -- are disproportionately high among restaurant workers.
This comes as no surprise to Peter Brigham, former president of the Burn Foundation, a nonprofit community education and support agency in Philadelphia. "The food service industry experiences the highest number of burns of any employment sector," he says, adding that cooks are at particular risk.
A recipe for accidents
Steam, oil and grease, boiling soups, hot grills and ovens, and even exposed or improperly maintained wiring and equipment can all result in workplace burn injuries. The Burn Foundation has found that such injuries tend to occur when managers don't enforce safety rules or when workers themselves are careless about safety. The potential for accidents is also greater when workers are worn out, high on drugs or alcohol, or are simply taking unnecessary risks. In this fast-paced industry, congested quarters also contribute to potential disaster; employees changing oil in a fryer or rushing a tureen of hot soup down a narrow aisle may crash into each other.
Twenty-three-year-old cook Colleen Parker of Illinois learned the hard way what can happen in an overcrowded, bustling restaurant kitchen. A single moment of inattention was all it took. One of the chefs was trying hurriedly to change a large pot of boiling water that had been simmering on the stove for nearly five hours. Unfortunately for Parker, who was standing nearby, he set the pot down on a too-narrow steam table while preparing to dump its contents. The enormous pot full of scorching hot liquid slipped and scalded her mercilessly. Even though she managed to jump clear -- avoiding a catastrophe -- she suffered second- and third-degree burns on her leg.
Although many burn accidents are not as serious, the importance of prevention cannot be overstated. LeAnn Chuboff, of the National Restaurant Association, urges all restaurants to develop an effective safety plan to prevent burns and other injuries. The first step, she says, is to review the establishment's safety records and see what kind of patterns emerge. The manager should then oversee a safety audit of the entire restaurant and develop a safety policy with the input of both managers and employees. An ongoing safety committee that includes members of the kitchen crew as well as supervisors is also important, she adds.
Tips for a burn-free kitchen
The Burn Foundation recommends these tips in order to protect yourself from burns at work:
- Wear protective gloves or mitts when handling hot pots or cooking with hot, deep-frying oil.
- Wear non-skid shoes to prevent slipping on wet or greasy tile floors.
- Extinguish hot oil/grease fires by sliding a lid over the top of the container.
- Never carry or move oil containers when the oil is hot or on fire.
- Avoid reaching over or across hot surfaces and burners; use barriers, guards or enclosures to prevent contact with hot surfaces.
- Read and follow directions for proper use of electrical appliances.
- Keep first-aid kits readily available.
- Make sure at least one person on each shift has first-aid training.
- Keep fire extinguishers accessible and up to date.
Chuboff adds that it's also important to plan traffic patterns so employees carrying hot food don't collide with each other. "Keeping kitchen traffic to a minimum is key," she says.
Meanwhile, Parker and Guerin still carry some scars, both emotional and physical, from their accidents. Parker no longer works in the kitchen: As a result of her burns, she found it too difficult to wear the proper shoes for work. Her carefree days of summer frolicking have also been affected. "I really enjoy summer activities without shoes and socks, but I'm very self-conscious about the scars," she says.
After his accident, Guerin received painful skin grafts on his back, which still has a few areas of hypertrophic scarring. He's happy to report, though, that "most of it is just dark splotches all over -- it's pretty smooth." His arms also needed grafts and are now criss-crossed with thick scars. "My arms seem to itch 24 hours a day," he says, "and it's still pretty painful. My donor sites itch until they hurt." Now 19-years-old, Guerin is back in the kitchen as the lead cook in another restaurant.
National Restaurant Association's Educational Foundation www.nraef.org. The National Restaurant Association's Educational Foundation offers an educational program called AWARE: EMPLOYEE AND CUSTOMER SAFETY PROGRAM. The nine modules offered include sections on ensuring fire safety in the kitchen and preventing burns. The Educational Foundation also offers videos that promote workplace safety, which focus on how to prevent on-the-job injuries along with an interactive CD-ROM.
The Burn Foundation www.burnfoundation.org
Burn Survivors Online www.burnsurvivorsonline.com
Interview with Cody Geurin and Colleen Parker, restaurant workers
Interview with LeAnn Chuboff, manager of food safety services for the National Restaurant Association
Interview with Peter Brigham, Burn Foundation, Philadelphia
Be Aware Heat Can Burn You! safety brochure, National Restaurant Association
Chefs, Cooks, and Other Kitchen Workers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics