Many don’t realise the dangers baristas face. Burns from steamers and hot coffee and wet floors can cause hazards of their own, but often baristas face musculoskeletal problems as well. One Australian barista received a $600,000 settlement after her injuries caused her arm and wrist to go blue, and extensive nerve damage meant she had to have a rib removed, all because safety and appropriate working conditions were not considered. "Barista wrist" is a term many have coined to describe common wrist injuries faced by baristas from lifting heavy milk jugs when steaming milk, reaching up and down for supplies, and injuries from emptying portafilters (those things with the espresso grounds). If those aren’t bad enough, it can get worse when you experience something like chronic shoulder pain. Here are quick ways to prevent and treat barista shoulder pain.
A study published in the journal Ergonomics conducted at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario in 2014 analysed occupational-related shoulder (and lower back pain) in baristas. 68% of baristas experienced shoulder pain (73% with back pain). Half of these baristas admitted that pain was a result of their jobs. But by considering cafe ergonomics and utilising appropriate health and safety models, these injuries can be reduced.
Keeping milk jugs and supplies at appropriate height
One way to reduce barista shoulder pain and injury is by placing items at the appropriate waist height. That way baristas do not have to bend down, for example, to grab jugs of milk from the fridge forty two times per day. Some coffee shops have switched to sandwich-prep style refrigerators (inside the countertop) for milk storage near espresso machines. Other places, place fridge shelves at level with the bar instead of under the counter. Keeping drinks cups, straws, serviettes, lids, and everything else at the appropriate height can stop baristas from having to bend down repetitively which can cause strain on the back and on the shoulder joint.
For those who work in cafes that aren’t well designed, try and bend from the knees instead of bending over at the waist, and lift with two hands when you can, close to the body to eliminate shoulder strain. If you already have shoulder strain, be sure to continue to lift in this way until you have healed.
Consider movements when tamping and emptying portafilters
Many baristas understand that the job is physically demanding, especially when tamping and emptying portafilters. If your baristas have to tamp, they have to apply at least thirty pounds of pressure on the coffee grounds, but many suggest that it’s more important even pressure is applied rather than force. Applying too much pressure can cause shoulder strain.
Tamping should be done with the core muscles and not with hunched shoulders. The elbow should be placed at 90 degrees, and baristas should have a straight, neutral wrist. The handle of the tamper should rest against the fatty pad of the palm below the thumb.
When emptying portafilters, it’s important not to slam the filter into the bin, which can cause a knock on injury in the wrist up to the shoulder.
Some cafes have auto-dosing and tamping grinders that do these actions automatically, which reduce strain on baristas. Automating some tasks can allow your baristas to focus on their coffee-making expertise and less on their repeated injuries!
If you’re experiencing shoulder pain from tamping or emptying the filters try rotating tasks or performing the action properly and safely.
Design workplaces appropriately
Basic barista functions such as tamping, steaming, and removing portafilters from the machines cause repeated stress on the muscles, which can lead to injuries, chronic pain, and - sometimes - permanent damage. The right cafe ergonomics can help reduce muscular stress and shoulder injuries.
Tools and stations should be streamlined to reduce bending and reaching. There are ergonomic consultants who can help you build your coffee bar from scratch. If you can build a roomier bar area, it’s better than a cramped one where baristas have to manoeuvre around each other.
Consider if your baristas will stand near a hot appliance, dish sanitisers, and the counter height. Incorrectly designed spaces can lead to injuries. There are now machines that have push-pull steaming systems, cool touch steam wands, and smooth locking portafilters to help reduce barista shoulder, arm, and back strain - as well as injuries from burns.
Install thick, rubber mats on the floor
Anti-fatigue, thick rubber floor mats give traction for wet areas, and provide leg and back support when baristas spend hours standing. Having support under the feet can not only reduce slips, but it can also keep the body’s posture aligned more correctly, which reduces shoulder injuries and pain. Consider treading on a hard floor, and the jarring effect it would have on a sore shoulder, but with rubber mats, the effect is much less as mats provide necessary padding to help heal injured shoulders and reduce pain in healing ones.
Avoid common coffee shop hazards
Slips, trips, and falls are the number one workplace accident, so wet floors, scalding hot water, and heavy lifting can all cause trouble for shoulders. Baristas could slip, catch themselves with an arm which could dislocate a shoulder or injure the wrist. Lifting incorrectly can also cause injury, and sudden jerks away from scaling water can too - not to mention the hazards of repetitive strain injuries often experienced by baristas and cashiers alike.
Make sure to plan ahead to avoid having accidents that will exacerbate shoulder injuries. Make sure to move slowly and purposefully, and do not lift, bend, or move the arms and shoulders in ways that would cause strain. It’s important that baristas are mindful of their body positions, and if they are experiencing pain it’s important to stop those actions that cause problems or find alternative ways to reduce and eliminate pain.
Create job rotation
Repetitive strain is problematic in the coffee shop industry because, often, baristas have to repeat the same actions for hours at a time; however, this problem can be remedied by simple job rotation. Have baristas rotate tasks so that no one person is, say, working the register, making espresso, making different drinks, and so forth. Coffee making can be streamlined into an assembly line process in which each person rotates tasks as well. Lifting and washing should not all be done by one person either as these tasks can cause shoulder strain as a result of reaching and lifting objects with the arm overextended. Job rotations can allow sore and tired muscles to rest and heal.
Have your baristas wear appropriate shoes
One of the most important safety features is protecting your barista’s feet and posture with appropriate, comfortable slip-resistant shoes. Since baristas move around all day, their footwear has to last, and get them home safely. The right cushioning and safety features are essential to keeping injuries - from head to toe (and even shoulder) - at bay.
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