In this article
Kitchens are notoriously hot and hectic places to work. Even in household kitchens, dangers are present and it is necessary to take care to avoid accident or injury.
Commercial kitchens introduce additional risks such as the added pressure of getting lots of different dishes out on time, large teams with varying experience trying to work around each other, extra fire hazards, strong or toxic cleaning materials and the potential to harm public health by serving food that is unsafe.
According to a recent Labour Force Survey 441,000 working people sustained an injury at work, and other key figures for 2020/21 suggest there are 1.7 million working people suffering from a work-related illness. Those working in high-risk environments are naturally more likely to incur an accident or injury at work.
Fires resulting from cooking facilities, for example school, workplace, care home, hotel and restaurant kitchens, rank within the top six causes of fires in the UK.
Risks that are present in kitchens include hot equipment, sharp knives and bacteria from cross-contamination. Whilst all risks cannot be removed due to the nature of the work involved, they can be managed and minimised by thorough training, consistent staffing and good housekeeping.
What are the dangers in a kitchen?
In commercial kitchens, especially large-scale operations such as restaurants or hotel kitchens with a long chain of command, it is vital that staff understand how to work safely. Hospitality typically has a high staff turnover which makes it even more important to keep training consistent.
Common dangers in kitchens include:
- Burns from hot items, equipment, steam or oil.
- Knife cuts.
- Slips, trips and falls.
- Fire or electrical hazards.
- Food poisoning.
Commercial kitchens also introduce an increased risk of hazards, such as:
- Chemical hazards.
- Hectic or crowded working environments.
- Lifting injuries.
- Injuries from machinery or equipment.
- Lack of ventilation.
Food poisoning in the kitchen
Food poisoning is caused by contaminated, toxic or spoiled food. One of the most common ways for this to happen is through cross-contamination. The chance of cross-contamination occurring is significantly reduced by washing hands thoroughly with soap and water, using separate chopping boards for raw meat and making sure all staff have basic food hygiene training.
Food can also become unsafe if it is contaminated by microorganisms or physical contaminants. The chances of this happening reduce if food is stored appropriately and covered and if staff stick to a strict hygiene regime.
Regular disinfection and cleaning of food preparation areas including kitchen sides, sinks and floors is also vital to ensuring a hygienic kitchen environment.
Manual handling in the kitchen
All kitchen staff that work in a kitchen environment should be trained in manual handling as well as more general health and safety practice, from kitchen porters who wash the dishes, to service staff who collect the meals, to the chefs who are cooking and preparing food on a daily basis.
Manual handling encompasses a range of activities, including lifting, twisting, pushing, pulling, lowering and carrying either by hand or using ‘bodily force’.
Manual handling in the kitchen might be required during the following activities:
- Putting away orders (this can include lifting and carrying boxes, stacking pallets, shelving stock).
- Bending down to put food into low ovens or to retrieve it.
- Stooping down or standing with a poor posture to wash and stack dishes for long periods of time.
- Dragging heavy trays laden with crockery from industrial dishwashers.
- Stretching or twisting to take food items, pans, trays, cups etc from high up.
- Carrying heavy plates and other crockery.
Poor manual handling can result in injuries such as sprains, joint problems, inflammation, back problems and musculoskeletal disorders.
For the year 2019/20, a Labour Force Survey estimated that of 1.6 million workers suffering from work-related ill health, 30% of these were due to musculoskeletal disorders. Manual handling injuries can have short- and long-term effects on health.
Staff having to take time off to recover from manual handling related injuries might also result in increased pressure being put on the rest of the team which can affect staff morale and increase work-related stress. Staff who are stressed and overworked might also be more likely to incur a work-related injury or to work less safely.
Burns in the kitchen
Hot oil, boiling water and certain chemicals can be a kitchen hazard, as well as hot pans, ovens and griddles. Making contact with these items can result in skin burns. The chance of an accidental burn occurring are significantly increased in stressful environments, during instances of being short-staffed or when staff are improperly trained.
Even small burns or scalds can be very painful. Minor injuries can usually be dealt with by a trained first-aider. Large or deep burns, chemical or electric burns, burns that cause white skin or if they are in addition to other injuries need to be treated at the hospital.
To reduce the chances of sustaining a burn in the kitchen:
- Do not wear loose fitting clothes.
- Avoid leaning over bubbling pots on the stove (hot steam could escape).
- Do not stir hot liquid with metal spoons or leave metal utensils to get hot (as they conduct and retain heat).
- Avoid overfilling pots and pans with liquids whilst cooking (oil, water, milk etc).
- Take special care around deep fat fryers.
- Use your PPE in the kitchen (oven mitts, aprons, chef whites).
Improper handling of kitchen equipment in the kitchen
Misusing kitchen equipment can be dangerous. Equipment and tools in the kitchen might be misused due to lack of experience or training, negligence or during stressful and busy times when staff become distracted.
Kitchen appliances get hot and can also create steam, both of which pose a risk of burns and injury. Metal is a conductor of heat and whilst this makes it a useful material to cook food in, it is important to remember that metal pans, spoons, trays and surfaces can reach extremely high temperatures.
When hot metal makes contact with the skin it can cause serious burns and lesions.
Choosing to stir with wooden spoons, using oven gloves or dry tea towels (as wet ones will also quickly conduct heat) to handle hot materials, never pouring hot oils into plastic containers and taking care to work safely around others can reduce the chance of getting injured by equipment in the kitchen.
Many kitchen appliances run on electricity. It is dangerous to overload sockets or to get electrical appliances wet. Trailing cables or cluttered surfaces increase the risk of equipment falling and injuring someone or becoming a fire hazard.
Gas appliances used incorrectly can introduce a serious risk of fire or explosion.
To stay safe around kitchen appliances:
- Avoid overloading sockets.
- Use common sense and follow appliance instructions (such as no metal in microwaves).
- Do not leave gas on if it is not ignited.
- Ensure good housekeeping throughout the kitchen.
- Use PPE when necessary (aprons, gloves, safety shoes etc).
- Use knives with care.
Kitchens are often busy and hectic. Slips, trips and falls account for a large number of accidents at work.
Common causes of slips, trips and falls are:
- Wet or slippery floors.
- Uneven or damaged flooring.
- Steps or raised areas.
- Obstacles from poor housekeeping.
Injuries caused by slips, trips and falls include sprains, bruising and grazes. More serious accidents could result in broken bones, spinal damage or head injuries. There can be long-term effects of falling at work, especially if the fall happens whilst carrying hot items, including serious burns and scarring.
Take care whilst moving around a busy kitchen and ensure that loads you are carrying never obstruct your view. Clean up spillages immediately and always use a wet floor sign to alert others to the hazard.
Improper storage in the kitchen
A large part of being a chef is multitasking; however, it is important to be as organised as possible and avoid getting distracted and cutting corners. Staying focussed and organised helps to avoid many of the hazards in the kitchen.
A well run kitchen should have health and safety as a priority. It is important that food is stored correctly to reduce the chances of someone becoming ill through cross-contamination, microbial contamination or allergen contamination.
- Chemicals should always be stored in labelled bottles.
- Food and chemicals/cleaning supplies should be stored separately.
- Surfaces and flooring should be clear and free from clutter.
- Rubbish should be stored appropriately and emptied regularly so as not to encourage pests.
- Safety equipment (such as fire blankets, fire extinguishers or first aid kits) should be easily and quickly accessible.
- Fire exits should be clearly labelled and never obstructed.
- Follow manufacturers’ guidelines.
Keeping food out at the room temperature can increase the risk of bacteria growing. Food that has been cooked and is destined for the refrigerator should be cooled down quickly and put into the fridge as soon as possible and not left out for long periods of time.
Chilled food should be kept in a refrigerator. Food that is being stored in a container also needs to have a tightly fitting cover. This reduces instances of physical contaminants entering the food accidentally.
Food should be stored as per the relevant guidelines. It is good practice to keep frozen food at temperatures of -18°C or colder. Cold food must be kept in a refrigerator at 8°C or below. This is required by law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Fire and electrical hazards in the kitchen
Accidents involving fire or electrics will often occur due to faulty equipment or poorly trained staff. Cooking food requires heat and the use of culinary tools and kitchen equipment. Electric or gas faults or human error can result in fires or electrocution.
Primary fire hazards that exist within most kitchens will include deep fat fryers, gas hobs, grills and ovens. Kitchens and kitchen areas may also be places that store highly combustible materials such as linen (tea towels, napkins or table cloths), cooking oils, chemicals and cleaning fluids.
To minimise the chance of a fire or electrical incident occurring:
- Make sure fire training is done periodically and all staff attend.
- Only use equipment that is safe and fit for purpose.
- Store chemicals properly, in labelled bottles and away from sources of ignition.
- Discard and replace electrical items that have frayed, loose or exposed wires.
- Only get repairs done by qualified gas or electrical professionals.
- Have clear Standards of Practice (SOPs) for opening and closing of the kitchen (such as checking the gas is switched off and everything is left clean and tidy).
- Make sure there is a fire blanket available (required by legislation).
- Conduct regular maintenance inspections.
- Have the correct fire extinguishers on hand and staff that know how to use them safely (including a rated ‘F’ portable fire extinguisher designed for fighting oil fires).
Recovering from a kitchen hazard
Minor injuries can be tended to on site by a designated first-aider. The Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations 1981 state that employers have to provide ‘adequate and appropriate’ first aid provisions.
- First aid equipment (such as first aid box, burns kit etc).
- Personnel (trained, on-site staff).
The specific first aid needs of a business premises will vary from business to business. Provisions for first aid will be assessed during a risk assessment. During this, a competent professional will consider risk factors, employee needs, first aid box contents and emergency first aid requirements.
The findings of the risk assessment should reflect the nature of the business, scale of operation and other relevant factors (such as use of dangerous chemicals, equipment etc).
More serious accidents and injuries will need medical treatment at a hospital, GP surgery or walk-in clinic.
After an injury at work, you should always follow your treatment plan and take the required time off to recover, follow the instructions on any prescribed medication and seek advice if your condition fails to improve.
In an emergency always call 999.
How to minimise hazards in the kitchen
A kitchen environment will never be completely hazard free. Sharp knives, extreme heat, and electrical or gas appliances are all necessary for the preparation and cooking of food.
An accident or injury at work can result in short- and long-term health implications, loss of revenue, pain and suffering, stressful investigations and, in serious cases, can even be fatal.
It is important that precautions are taken to mitigate risks and minimise kitchen related hazards, such as:
- Ensuring staff are fully trained in how to work safely.
- Regular, thorough risk assessments to be done by a competent person.
- Having kitchen equipment regularly tested and inspected to make sure it is fit for purpose.
- Working in a clean and tidy environment.
- Promoting good communication (this includes ways to work around language or cultural barriers and the importance of teamwork).
- Cleaning up any spillages promptly and using a wet floor sign when necessary.
- Having a clear fire evacuation plan.
- Providing the correct PPE and safety equipment.
- Using reputable suppliers for ingredients, tools and equipment and having a traceable supply chain.
- Making sure there is adequate ventilation in the kitchen that can remove cooking fumes at source, excess hot air and to prevent the risk of carbon monoxide accumulating.
Aside from thorough training and good management, another significant way to reduce dangers in the kitchen is through good housekeeping.
Poor housekeeping (including untidy, disorganised and unhygienic environments) increases the risk of:
- Food contamination and food poisoning.
- Slips, trips and falls.
- Accidents and injuries.
- Staff becoming stressed.
- Pests becoming an issue.
- Fires occurring.
Many aspects of working within a kitchen have the potential to cause injury. By working as safely as possible and making sure you have an understanding of kitchen dangers and risks and how to mitigate them, you can help to significantly reduce instances of ill health or accidents.