Radical overhaul of layout, design and working practices is needed to prevent back pain associated with kitchen work

A radical overhaul of layout, design and working practices is needed if we are going to prevent back pain associated with kitchen work, said UNISON, the UK’s largest union yesterday.

The call for better design and safer working practices, follows the release of a survey which shows that repetitive movements, including bending, twisting, working in awkward positions and lifting heavy objects lead to a variety of musculoskeletal complaints, including pains in the shoulders, lower back, knees, wrists and ankles.

The problems caused were so severe that, 49% of those surveyed said they had experienced pain in the past week. A massive 77% had significant pain in the past 12 months, with over half revealing that they had to seek medical help, because their condition was so acute.

Hope Daley, UNISON Senior National Health and Safety Officer, said:

“Living with pain should not be an option, especially when employers could take action to prevent it. We need proper risk assessments to monitor where the real danger areas are and immediate action where solutions have already been identified.

“Most kitchen workers are women and they have to adjust themselves to the work surface, instead of work surfaces adjusting to them. Surfaces are designed at a standard height, leaving people who are above or below the average, working in an awkward posture, particularly when cutting or chopping.

“Taller workers will have to lean and bend forward more, which increases the likelihood of developing back problems. And if a woman is smaller, she will have her arms and hands held in an awkward position causing wrist and shoulder damage.

“This problem must be addressed when designing workplace kitchens. It should be possible to have workbenches at different heights, or with adjustable surfaces that would reduce the risk of injury.

“The survey showed that the way people work also contributes to the risk of developing musculoskeletal injury. The likelihood of injury increased when employees were working very fast and intensively. When in a hurry workers, tended to lift badly, putting stress on their lower backs. If staff are able to take more time over tasks, then the risk of injury is reduced.”

The cost of sickness absence is significant, but some employers are failing to take even the most basic precautions against accidents. Failure to repair equipment made jobs more awkward and heavy and in other cases the lack of equipment or staff shortages increased the risk of injury. However, the survey found that the greatest number of complaints were about how heavy many kitchen tasks were and how awkward they were – particularly when they meant long periods bending over.

Given the problems of working with equipment shortages, poorly designed equipment and breakdown, exacerbated by the lack of staff, catering workers felt under pressure from colleagues and managers, which in turn led to stress.

Hope Daley went on to say:

“Employers have a legal duty to protect their workers from injury , so dealing with wet floors or an environment that is uncomfortably hot or cold, should be a priority. It’s not rocket science and it would help to turn kitchens into pain-free zones.”

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