You go to a restaurant along with your family members, friends, or business guests and see those neatly attired servers who put a smile on their face to welcome you, make you seated, show you the menu, serve you delicacies of your choice and stay alert for the whole time you are there. After paying the bill, you then leave the place more often than not with some degree of satisfaction. Did you ever care to know who cooked that meal for you- the underpaid, spice and oil stained, half-baked person working all day beside a highly heated oven standing in a damp, sticky, narrow, half-lit corner or walking over a greasy, slippery and clogged floor? You probably did not and none of us ever did.
Cooks and food servers constitute a large and important section of the labour-force who provide important service for the city dwellers across the socio-economic stratum. They primarily work at the hotels and restaurants and also make an important job category in many other institutional settings such as hospitals, resorts, community centers, factories, hostels, prisons, universities, large government offices and private businesses. Hotels and restaurants are usually small businesses and are mostly privately and family owned. Some pricey restaurants have large dining rooms and a large number of serving staff whereas most are smaller establishments. Also, there are fast food restaurants, where meals are prepared in a few minutes for customers, and there are cafeterias, where people go through serving lines and make their selections from an assortment of already cooked foods that remain on display.
The restaurant workforce can include cooks and other kitchen staff, servers, cleaners and a cashier or manager. These jobs mostly require minimal training, experience, and literacy. In Bangladesh, these places tend to be staffed by rural migrants and often by the poorer relatives and friends of the business owner. Salaries tend to be quite low and employee turnover is very high. Without available and credible data, it is hard to comment on how many people are employed in hotels and restaurants in Dhaka or Bangladesh. In some countries they make a substantial component of the working population: in Japan, there are about 600,000 restaurants that employ 4 million people.
Several types of injuries can occur in the kitchen area, such as burns from deep fryers, slipping on grease and cuts from knives. Lack of or inadequate maintenance in the kitchen area can lead to injuries. Kitchen personnel may slip on wet or oily floors and injure themselves. Plates or trays of food or dishes can fall over. An additional hazard can be not using the proper gear to get items stored on higher shelves.
Kitchen workers frequently use knives to chop and dice vegetables, fish and meat, and knives if incorrectly used or stored can inflict severe injuries. Common types of equipment used in kitchens are meat crushers, food mixers, and ice machines. Wrong use of these can result in cuts, limbs caught in moving parts and electric shock. Women workers wearing sarees with long hair and wearing jewelry are at higher risk of getting stuck or entangled in or by a cooking equipment or catching a fire.
Burns are the main hazards experienced by these workers while using "chula", stoves and ovens. Deep fryers are used for frying fish, meats and vegetables. Splashing of hot water or oil, adding or removing hot oil, dropping objects into hot oil, tumbling on the floor, scrubbing the chula, grill or fryer can cause burn injuries.
Almost all kitchen workers are exposed to heat stress with the chef or cook is the most at risk since he or she works near a hot chula, stove and oven. Very high room temperature can cause various heat-related health complications such as headaches, high blood pressure, skin disorders, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can be common, and, in some cases, loss of consciousness has been reported.
Workers can fall slipping on wet floors or fall over carts, boxes, or garbage containers left randomly and carelessly. They can sustain sprains, break limbs, or injure their necks and backs. Falling on sharp objects can result in cutting of limbs. Non-slip mats and non-slip floor waxes can be used at entrances and exits. Loose floor tiles, exposed wiring, spills should always be taken care of promptly.
Research findings differed by the sector of service as fast food and other restaurants differ by food preparation, work pace, work environment, work processes and raw materials handled. Nevertheless, many tasks including operating ovens or burners, cleaning dishes and serving food are similar throughout these sectors.
Thorough and timely housekeeping is vital for fire prevention in restaurants. All corners of the restaurant should be checked for build-up of litter, grease and oil. Flammable items such as aerosols and greasy scraps should be kept in suitable covered bins. Pipes, filters and fans in the kitchen must be kept clean. Fire exits must be visibly marked, and corridors to the exits must be free of cartons, garbage and other debris. The use of functional fire alarms and sprinkler systems should be part of the fire prevention programme.
Personal protective equipment such as gloves, aprons and long-sleeved shirts should always be worn.
To prevent heat stress, ventilation can be increased with oven hoods that redirect hot air. Good ventilation systems will remove smell, grease and smoke from kitchen areas. Kitchen personnel should be educated on how to identify heat related disorders.
Kitchen employees should wear hard, low-heeled, rubber-soled shoes while on duty. Loose electrical cords and wiring should always be taped down to the floor or put under the carpet. All rugs spread in the dining room must be non-slip type. Carpeting should be examined daily for lifted or loose edges that can cause food servers to trip and fall. Items on higher shelves should only be reached by using a ladder or step stool. Equipment must be turned off and disconnected before cleaning. Women employees should wear hair nets and avoid wearing swaying and loose jewelry while working.
Prevention policies can be developed to reduce the hazards present at the hotels and restaurants and promote safer work practices for these workers. Simple common-sense interventions and training programmes on hazard identification and reduction may substantially decrease the risk of injuries among these workers.
Next time you visit a restaurant, will you kindly take a minute to walk around, glance inside the kitchen to say hello to the cook who prepared your meal?
Hasnat M. Alamgir is Professor, Department of Pharmacy, East West University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.