Emerging food trends come with OHS concerns

Mental health, young worker safety also top of mind in restaurant, food service

Emerging food trends come with OHS concerns

A 24-year-old German chef blew off both of his hands when experimenting with liquid nitrogen. He was testing out a new “molecular gastronomy” recipe when there was an enormous explosion. The chef lost his right hand in the explosion and his left hand had to be amputated at the hospital, said German media when the incident occurred in July 2009. He also suffered a serious injury on his leg and genital area.

Liquid nitrogen is being used more and more in restaurants, ice cream parlours, bars, concession stands and catering services for its ability to cause instant freezing — it has a boiling point of -196C — and create a visible fog, enhancing the entertainment factor for customers. The liquid expands rapidly at room temperature to nitrogen gas (1 litre of liquid nitrogen produces 70 litres of nitrogen gas).

Cocktails are given a mystical quality, ice cream goes from mere ingredients to a smooth, frozen treat in seconds and popcorn gets a fun twist by being served cold.

Liquid nitrogen can even freeze alcohol, allowing bartenders to make extremely cold drinks, cocktail slushies or alcoholic ice cubes. 

Behind the scenes, chefs are using it to freeze ingredients, such as chocolate, berries, citrus, herbs and honey. They become very cold and brittle after being blasted with liquid nitrogen, and they can even be crushed into a powder. 

While it can be fun for chefs and patrons alike, liquid nitrogen comes with many hazards that restaurant and food service employers and workers need to understand. Both the Ontario Ministry of Labour and WorkSafeBC came out with hazard alerts specifically for liquid nitrogen over the past seven months due to increased use in the restaurant and food service industry.

“Improper handling, if it gets in your eye, could cause blindness. If it gets on your skin, it could cause skin damage. It kills the skin, blistering, and in large quantities it could be quite harmful,” says Ken Jones, certified food safety specialist with Keel HSE Management in Dartmouth, N.S. “You compare it to hot oil, a deep fat fryer for example, they are pretty much on different ends of the spectrum from being 196C hot and -196C cold and equally they will do the same amount of damage.”

Liquid nitrogen can cause cold burns, frostbite or eye damage on contact. When handling the substance, workers — including servers and bartenders — should be wearing loose-fitting insulated (cryogenic) or leather gloves, goggles and a face shield, long-sleeved shirt, pants without cuffs and closed-toe shoes, says the Ontario Ministry of Labour.

Tremendous force can be created if liquid nitrogen vaporizes in an enclosed space. For example, a canister of the liquid with a failed pressure valve can be propelled with enough force to shatter a reinforced concrete beam, says WorkSafeBC. Proper containers designed for liquid nitrogen storage and proper transfer equipment are a must. If there is a large spill or a container ruptures, the building should be evacuated because there may be an oxygen deficiency.

Nitrogen gas is capable of displacing oxygen in the air, which can lead to dizziness, nausea, vomiting or death. An oxygen monitoring system should be provided in areas where liquid nitrogen is stored and used, says the Ontario Ministry of Labour.

All restaurants that are using liquid nitrogen need a standard operating procedure for handling and using it safely, as well as an emergency procedure on what to do if it comes in contact with the body, says Jones. Cold burns should be flushed with tepid water or placed in a warm water bath. The skin should not be rubbed as this may cause tissue damage, and the victim should seek medical attention.

Although liquid nitrogen is colourless, odourless and tasteless, it can still pose hazards if ingested. Three years ago in Miami, a 61-year-old woman spent five days in the hospital after taking one sip from her cocktail that left holes in her esophagus and stomach.  Consumers — including excited chefs and staff — need to wait until liquid nitrogen wears off completely before taking a bite or sip of the concoction.

The use of liquid nitrogen falls under the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) and there should be a safety data sheet available for it. Restaurant workers should have WHMIS training to make sure they not only know how to work with liquid nitrogen, but also with the many different chemicals used in food service, such as sanitizers, soaps, oven cleaners, deep fryer cleaners, degreasers and floor cleansers.

“It’s important to have that training aspect so the workers know what those products are and what they’re used for and that they are mixing them and using them at those proper concentrations,” says Rosalyn Sellick, OHS officer at the Workers Compensation Board of PEI in Charlottetown.

Liquid nitrogen is not the only up and coming concern in the restaurant and food service industry. Sous-vide cooking, a method where vacuum-sealed foods are submerged in a water bath on low temperatures for long periods of time, is a current food trend. According to Restaurant Canada’s Canadian Chef Survey, sous-vide cooking is the fourth hottest food trend for 2017.

Often used for cooking meat, the finished product is wonderful and very tender, but it certainly poses some health concerns, says Dennis Green, director of industry training at go2HR, a human resources association for British Columbia’s tourism and hospitality sector.

“During the cooking process, it’s holding foods for a longer period of time than you normally would in the danger zone. They do get to the point where they are pasteurized at the end of the cooking process,” says Green, who is also a Red Seal chef. “There’s a lot that goes into doing that technique properly — making sure you’re handling food, preparing it properly and maintaining the right temperature and getting food to the correct temperature before it’s being served.”

If not done properly, bacteria, especially the kind that form spores, can multiply in the warm, oxygen-deficient vacuum packs.

From restaurants and catering to cafeterias and dining halls, food service workers are often eating the food they prepare, so they can be subjected to the same illnesses or reactions as their customers.

There is a trend in food service towards foraging and using wild foods, which can pose risks as well. Restaurant Canada’s survey of 560 chefs across the country ranked locally sourced food as the number 5 trend for this year. Government regulations require food comes from an approved source and there is documentation on its traceability, says Green.

“People will watch a show and see chefs out there picking mushrooms in the forest and every once in a while people will do that without understanding what they’re harvesting and do themselves some damage,” he says. “People shouldn’t be serving anything unless they know exactly what it is and where it comes from.”

Whenever new food is experimented with, there is always the risk for unanticipated allergic reactions. Individuals may not know they are allergic to something if they have never tried it before.

“Whenever you try anything new, try it in moderation, ask questions about it first. Try a little tiny bit of something in case your body doesn’t know how to deal with it,” says Clare Waddell, youth education consultant at the Workers Compensation Board of PEI, noting this advice is especially useful for young workers who lack experience.

Delta Hotels Halifax takes allergies very seriously, according to Sean Doucet, director of operations. Doucet was the executive chef for the restaurants and banquet facilities at the two Delta hotels in Halifax before taking on his current role.

“Any time somebody has a specific allergy, we take that opportunity to train our staff on what that allergy is. We used to have a staff member that worked in the kitchen with an anaphylactic allergy to peanuts. We ensured all nuts were kept separate and in sealed containers and when we needed to use them, they were secured to one area in the kitchen,” he says.


Psychological safety

Kitchens are often fast-paced, stressful environments where people work long, unusual hours, and this can certainly take a toll on an individual’s mental health. In November, a group of Edmonton chefs got together for the first Food for Thoughts fundraiser, an initiative designed to raise awareness of mental health issues in kitchens. They also expressed concern about the rampant drug and alcohol abuse throughout the industry.

“We struggle as an industry with a lack of oversight and accountability,” chef Cory Rakowski said at the event, as reported by the Edmonton Journal. “We accept that not being paid overtime is the norm. We accept (that) abuse, emotional, mental, is the norm. These are things we are OK with, in the name of passion… We are taught how to fix a broken Hollandaise, but we’re not taught how to cope with the pressure, the lack of self-worth.”

Most restaurants, unless they are big chains or a part of hotels, do not offer benefits for workers, so prescription drugs or counselling services to help with mental heath issues are not an option for most.

As with many male-dominated industries, sexual harassment is an area of concern in kitchens. In 2014, pastry chef Kate Burnham filed a human rights complaint against three senior chefs at Weslodge, a Toronto restaurant. Burnham said she was verbally harassed and routinely had her breasts and crotch grabbed. She also said her boss would take her aside and show her photos of his penis.

In an attempt to end sexism and harassment in restaurants, the government of Ontario announced a $1.7-million investment over the next three years to train bartenders, servers and others in the hospitality sector to identify and intervene in instances of sexual violence and harassment.

If any workers at Delta Halifax are experiencing any of type of harassment, violence or threatening behaviour, management wants to hear about it right away so it can take action, says Doucet.

“I have been around for a while and I remember working in kitchens years ago when there were a lot of Europeans with short tempers and frying pans would come flying across the kitchen. That stuff is not acceptable. It wasn’t acceptable back then but it kind of got overlooked, and in today’s day and age, it’s not acceptable at all,” he says.

Unruly customers can also be a concern, specifically at bars where lots of alcohol is being consumed. Staff should know how to properly diffuse the situation and be trained on warning signs.

“Workers (should know) what to watch for, so if there is an escalating situation, they can catch it in the early stages, whether it be body language or knowing how many drinks were served to that particular person and knowing what the procedure is,” says Waddell, adding young workers, specifically, should understand they don’t need to handle this type of situation by themselves.

When discussing the restaurant and food service industry, it’s important to give due consideration to young workers because they make up a substantial portion of the industry’s workforce. One in five young people aged 15 to 24 are employed in Canada’s restaurant industry, according to Restaurants Canada. Nearly one-quarter (22 per cent) of Canadians got their first job in the restaurant business — the highest of any industry.

“This is where they get their first indoctrination into workplace safety, so it’s really important that employers take that seriously and give them a good orientation, good education,” says Arlene Keis, CEO of go2HR.

In B.C., more than one-third (36 per cent) of all workers’ compensation claims in the restaurant and dining sector from 2011-15 involved young workers, according to data supplied by go2HR. Food counter attendants, kitchen helpers and related support occupations were hurt the most — they accounted for 32 per cent of all claims within the industry. New and young workers, according to go2HR, often occupy these jobs.

Young workers must understand they have the right to speak up if they don’t feel safe on the job. A good idea is to pair them with a mentor or buddy so they may feel more comfortable asking questions.

“We have raised them to be respectful and to not asked questions. If Grandma asks them to take out the garbage, just to do it. It’s a double-edged sword: we have raised them to not rock the boat and be respectful and to obey their elders and now we are sending them out on their own and now we want them to speak up and question everything and ask for reasons,” says Waddell.

As this may be their first job, young workers might need reminders about the importance of personal hygiene in the restaurant and food service industry, says Jones. When prepping food, there should be no jewelry or chewing gum and hairnets must be worn. Hand washing is extremely important and any time a worker touches any body part (such as the face or hair) she needs to wash her hands, says Jones.


Common injuries

While new food trends can cause emerging risks for workers, all food service employees still face a myriad of other hazards. Cuts are the most common type of injury within the industry, according to go2HR.

Proper knife handling skills training is important for the culinary team, says Doucet. Knife handles get broken down by grease and fat, but cooks often don’t want to take their favourite knife out of service so they wrap it in duct tape and try to keep using it for much too long, says Sellick.

Workers wielding knives need to be reminded to slow down and not get distracted.

“If somebody comes in and you are in the middle of cutting something, the best thing to do is to stop what you’re doing, have the conversation and then continue,” says Green.

Workers need to know how to properly maintain and use slicers, grinders and saws, and understand the importance of keeping them sharp.

Dishwashers are at a particular risk for cuts because they may be reaching into the sink and grabbing an item that could cut them, says Jones.

Cuts can also happen when items are broken — a common occurrence in a kitchen environment.

“We have a broken glass bin in the kitchen so if any of the servers, or anyone at all, breaks a plate, breaks a glass, they know how to handle it, they know where to put that glass so it doesn’t go into a garbage can and then cuts the bag and somebody gets hurt by trying to push the garbage down,” says Doucet.

All cuts pose a biohazard, so proper first aid is necessary before prepping food again, adds Jones. There should always be at least one person per shift with first-aid training.

Another hazard that comes to mind in kitchens is the risk of burns.

“It’s not uncommon for the kids in the schools to tell me ‘Oh yeah, lots of burns.’ Just sort of matter-of-factly, not proudly,” says Waddell, who works directly with young workers. “(They say) ‘Yeah, when you work in a kitchen, you always have lots of burns on your arms.’ That’s a little unsettling.”

Doucet has a significant burn on his right arm from a busy night in the restaurant.

“I had a pan heating up with some oil in it to sear salmon and when I placed the salmon in the pan, the oil splashed on my arm and I had a second degree burn,” he says. “You just need to be cautious and thinking about what you’re doing when you’re really busy so that you’re not going past that threshold of common sense.”

Through his restaurant and food safety inspections over the past 20 years, Jones has seen burns caused by improperly using deep fat fryers, picking up pots and pans without a protective mitt and spilling hot liquids. Burns can also be caused by handling certain types of foods, such as really hot peppers or hot sauces, says Sellick.

Workers should keep handles of pots and pans to the side, ensure deep fryers are at the proper temperature and be aware that steam can cause burns too. They should also assume that everything is always hot, including cooling racks, says Green.

Double-breasted chef coats are designed to help mitigate burn concerns and heat transfer. Improper clothing around open flames, such as polyester or a cotton-polyester blend or loose clothing, can catch on fire.

Proper workplace design can also help prevent burns. Many restaurants give their big space for dinning, so they can have more customers, but this means the kitchens can be small, crowded and cluttered, says Waddell.

“That’s when you might get burned because someone is brushing past you or you’re brushing past someone and you hit your hand on the grill or some other hot surface, even though you know it’s there and you know to be cautious around it, when there’s a rush — lots of people around, things are moving fast — that’s when things can happen.”

Slips, trips and falls are another major kitchen hazard. These contribute the most to workers’ compensation costs in the restaurant and dining industry in B.C., according to go2HR. Wet floors, wearing improper footwear, falling down stairs or tripping on wires and extension cords are often to blame.

To reduce the hazard caused by spills, Delta Halifax launched the Own the Spill program.

“If somebody actually spills something, or the first person who comes across a spill, they own it until it’s taken care of because if someone walks by and sees that someone dropped a glass of water and does nothing about it, the next person might not see it and may slip on it,” says Doucet.

Proper non-slip footwear is crucial for all restaurant and food service environments. Crocs, sandals or open-toed shoes are unacceptable, Jones says. And this goes for those in the kitchen as well as front of house.

“Servers coming and going into the kitchen, they may think ‘Oh I am not out right by the fryer’ but the grease or oil that may be on the floor can spread throughout the whole kitchen, then  they are taking it out into the dining area as well,” says Sellick.

Traction mats can be helpful in kitchens because liquids go into the holes and do not present an even greater slipping hazard, says Jones.

Fires are always a concern in kitchens. It’s important for workers to understand the basics, such as a grease or fat fire should never be extinguished with water and deep fat fryers can cause a fire if water gets into them, says Jones.

The right fire extinguishers — one with an ABC classification for paper, liquids and electrical fires and another with K classification for fat, grease and oil  — need to be on hand and workers need to know how to use them. When Jones inspects restaurants, many of them either have the wrong type of fire extinguisher or no extinguisher at all. It’s also important to have a Class K fire extinguishing system for commercial hoods that is serviced regularly and in good working order.

Workers need a solid understanding of how quickly a fire can happen, says Sellick.

“A lot of restaurants use propane stoves, (so) using hand towels in lieu of oven mitts that are tight fitting and you’re reaching over top, easily fire can happen there,” she says. “And often we have panic, which then you could catch your other items and cause a larger fire.”

Emergency procedures need to be in place. Employees should participate in fire drills and be reminded to keep fire exits clear.  

Employers in restaurant and food service need to keep their workers safe because many are facing a labour shortage, says Keis.

“If you are already down a couple cooks in the kitchen and then one of them slips and falls and is off work for two or three weeks... Loss-time is a big cost when you’re already short,” she says. “So keeping people safe, they’re getting that message loud and clear.”

Ultimately, many kitchens require a shift in thinking if they truly want to see improvements in health and safety, says Jones.

“It’s all about getting their product out to the customer and sometimes shortcuts are taken. If you take the time to think about what you’re doing about food safety, it will… save somebody from actually getting sick, or worse, dying,” he says. “The culture is coming along but they still need frequent inspections and people in the safety industry to make them aware.”

Amanda Silliker is the editor of Canadian Occupational Safety. 

This article originally appeared in the June/July issue of Canadian Occupational Safety.