As a young employee at McDonald's, 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.
That was some 10 years ago, but Smith, now an area supervisor for McDonald's in Brooklyn, New York, still shares what he learned from that experience with his employees. "There's a lot of repetition in these jobs, and it's easy to become overconfident and take shortcuts that can lead to accidents," he says. "I tell my workers that safety must be number one." Smith, who is in his late twenties, has worked at McDonald's since he was 16. As he talks, he glances over from time to time to the counter where his workers are filling orders industriously.
When things get busy, Smith, whose easy-going but no-nonsense manner fits right in with the rest of his crew, excuses himself to jump up and help his crew take drink orders or work the cash register.
Cathy Rivas, a college student working for Smith, says that her McDonald's shift is great for students because the hours are flexible and Smith is happy to give her time off to study for exams. On any given day Rivas, who was working the counter during this reporter's visit, may clear tables, sweep and mop the floor, scrub the bathroom, cook burgers and fries, and fill orders for soda and coffee. Because she's performing multiple tasks, Rivas -- like other fast-food workers -- is exposed to numerous potential hazards. 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. "They really emphasize safety here," she says.
A troubling safety record
Safety is important in any job, but particularly so in the fast-food industry, where young and inexperienced workers abound. In fact, according to the National Restaurant Association, the fast-food industry is one of the largest employers of teens in the country, and many go on to senior positions. More than half of McDonald's middle and senior managers started as fry cooks or other entry-level positions, and more than 50 percent of store owners began as crew members in a franchise. The fast-food industry also has one of the best records of promoting minorities.
But the industry has had 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, according to one of the only studies of its kind.
Collecting data from a sample of hospitals across the country over a two-year period, 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 percent -- took place in hamburger, pizza, or other fast-food establishments. Interestingly, most of the injuries occurred in hamburger restaurants (52.6 percent), as compared to pizza places (12.6 percent) and chicken or fish restaurants (11.7 percent).
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 further found that the type of injury varied according to gender. Of teens working in fast-food restaurants, males were more likely to have burns, lacerations, and other injuries related to cooking, while females were more likely to suffer sprains, strains, and contusions associated with cashiering and clearing tables.
More likely to be burned
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.
Not every worker who accidentally burns himself is as lucky as Tom Smith, whose lesions were relatively minor. Investigating burns among restaurant workers in Colorado and Minnesota, researchers found that of the 71 teenagers in Minnesota who had had work-related burns, 31 suffered permanent scarring. (Of these injuries, 28 occurred in fast-food restaurants, and 14 of those accidents involved hot grease.) One 16-year-old crew cook in a Minnesota fast-food outlet was burned over much of his body as he was pushing a container of hot grease outside to filter it. As he reached the door, the container slipped and the lid popped off, spilling the scalding grease all over him.
According to the Burn Foundation, 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. Tom Smith agrees. "Most accidents happen from overconfidence and cutting corners," he says. "Preventing burns is mostly a question of using common sense." At the McDonald's he manages, new employees receive on-the-job training alongside more experienced workers and practice with training cards.
Fast-food employees also need to be aware of the ever-present potential for robberies or random violence in their establishments. Five employees of a Wendy's in Queens, New York, for example, were shot to death in early 2000. Tom Smith took the tragedy to heart.
"I used it as an occasion to remind the employees to always follow our set procedures for robberies," he says, adding that the rules include barring any ex-employees from going behind the counter. In addition, he cautioned workers not to panic or try to play the hero -- in other words, to simply hand over the money. To deter hold-ups, managers also skim large bills from the registers during the day, and prominently display a sign stating the employees don't have access codes to open the safe.
More safety advice
Here are some other safety tips from NIOSH and industry experts:
- Prevent burn injuries by providing employees with appropriate gloves and scrapers and other cleaning tools with handles.
- Allow hot grease to cool before you move it.
- Wherever possible, use slip-resistant flooring to prevent falls and keep floors dry and well maintained.
- Wear nonskid 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.
To guard against accidental electrocution, NIOSH also recommends that employers buy plugs and receptacles that don't energize before insertion is complete; construct receptacle boxes out of non-conductive materials; label all fuse boxes and circuit breakers; and train workers in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Part of the Department of Labor, OSHA creates and enforces safety and health regulations in the workplace.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
The Burn Foundation
The National Restaurant Association
Youth Worker Safety Campaign,2010. http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/youth/restaurant/
"Adolescent Occupational Injuries in Fast Food Restaurants: An Examination of the Problem from a National Perspective," Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. December 1999.