Teaching the basics of using unfamiliar equipment, burns and heat exhaustion, carts and speed racks, fire safety and evacuations.
By Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE
Last month I talked about the importance of Teaching OSHA Saftey in a classroom, virtually, or in a hybrid teaching model. I addressed personal protective equipment, knife safety, lifting and climbing, and kitchen call outs. This month I am providing a brief article on safety for using unfamiliar pieces of equipment, burns and heat exhaustion, carts and speed racks, basic fire prevention, and evacuations.
Using unfamiliar pieces of equipment
New cooks are often embarrassed to say they do not know how to use a piece of equipment. Seasoned cooks and chefs are often too macho to say the same thing. These two things are major causes of injuries in a commercial kitchen.
- If you have never used a piece of equipment before, then say you have not. It is easier for a chef or lead to teach you how to use the slicer, than it is for them to bandage your hand, clean up the blood spill, and get you to a hospital after you have sliced your hand instead of the roast beef.
- If you have not used that brand or model of equipment, then say so. Not all equipment operates the same. After nearly 20 years of professional cooking, I was in a kitchen and was asked to slice tri-tip. I looked at the slicer, walked up to the lead prep cook, and asked him to show me how to use the machine. I knew humbling myself a bit would be better than slicing off a part of my hand.
- Don’t by-pass safety guards and devices. It’s done all of the time by others in kitchens throughout the country. Don’t do it yourself. Likewise, if the safety guards and devices are not functional don’t use that piece of equipment.
(Author’s note: Pardon me for being graphic on this subject, particularly about the slicer. The most serious injuries I have seen in commercial kitchens were caused by people faking that they knew how to use pieces of equipment and bypassing safety devices.)
Burns and heat exhaustion
For many people, burns are the second most common injury in commercial kitchens. I have to be pragmatic here; they will happen, just as cutting yourself with a knife will happen. However, like knife cuts, burns can be minimized with some basic safety practices.
- No horseplay in a kitchen. You will injure someone else or yourself, possibly badly.
- Assume ovens, grills, stoves, kettles, tilt skillets, etc. are hot. Likewise, with sheet pans, pots, pans, etc. that are in the kitchen or on a counter instead of in their appropriate storage area. It is much safer to think they are hot until you know they are not, instead of the other way around.
- Use the right equipment for working with hot items. For example, don’t use short tongs to reach into the bottom of a very large pot.
- Don’t have pot or pan handles hanging off the edge of a stove, counter or rack.
- Don’t put your head, arms or hands directly over large pots, kettles, etc. Stand to the side when opening ovens or dishwashers.
- When lifting a lid or removing foil from a hot pot or pan, lift it away from your face. In other words, the steam should rise from the back of the pot/pan and the lid or foil will protect your face from the steam.
- Use baskets or tongs to lower items into hot oil or water. Immerse items gently and slowly, do not throw them in the pot.
- NEVER EVER use water-based liquids near fryers or hot oil. Even a small amount from a water bottle can cause a major explosion if spilled into a hot fryer.
- Drink lots of WATER throughout your shift. Even if you are not using the hot kitchen equipment. Even if you are for example deveining shrimp in the prep sink, you still need to drink water because you are still in a hot kitchen.
Using carts and speed racks
If you need to move product or heavy items through a large kitchen or between locations, you are going to be using speed racks and carts. The funny thing about these kitchen items are they are never seen on cooking shows or movies about cooks and chefs. Although these can make life easier, they can cause a lot of problems (like when all of the contents fall on the floor because the person lost control) or worse a lot of injuries when large amounts of hot and heavy items (like 20-quart containers of stock) fall off the cart onto someone.
Here are some rules for using speed carts and racks:
- Keep the wheels clean and moving freely. I know it might sound strange to list this one first, but if the wheels stick and jam or don’t move freely, you may knock things off the cart.
- Put heavy items on the bottom and don’t overload the carts or racks. And for carts, don’t load above your eye-level. Also, don’t have items hanging off of the cart or rack.
- Generally, push speed racks and carts instead of pulling.
- Tie a clean towel to the handle or rack to indicate to others the items on the cart are hot.
- Park the cart or rack on the side, not in front of equipment or in the middle of a walkway.
- Be careful when rolling on/off mats and use your knees and not back to help get the wheels onto a higher surface.
- Use handles if they are provided.
- Remember kitchen call outs when moving a cart or rack.
The best way to deal with a fire is to prevent it from happening. It is much easier to prevent a fire than to stop one. Some of the ways to prevent fires include not overheating oil, not walking away from hot pots and pans, keeping water-based liquids away from hot oil, not overloading pots and pans (so the contents do not pour onto open flames), and keeping equipment with heating units (gas or electric) clean and well maintained.
Before you start working in a new kitchen you should:
- Find out where the fire extinguishers are and familiarize yourself with how to use them. There are different types of fire extinguishers, and they will be clearly labeled for the type of fires they are to be used on (e.g., wood and paper, electrical, grease, etc.) Make sure you know which is which and when to use each.
- Learn where the automatic fire extinguishing systems are located (for example, in the hood) and how to manually start them if they don’t start automatically.
If a fire starts:
- Don’t be quiet about it, call it out. You want to embarrass yourself a little bit as opposed to burning the building down and possibly killing people.
- Turn off the heat source. In the moment you need to remember to turn off the fryer or burner, etc.
- Don’t reach over the fire.
- If you can smother it with a lid, a pan, or sheet pan, do so, but don’t get your hand close to the fire. Don’t throw the lid, pan, etc. onto the burning item, you are likely to knock it over which will spread the fire.
- Don’t use water to put it out, even if it is a water-based item burning. Flames will often spread out on top of the water and move across the stove.
- Don’t wait for the automatic system to kick in, use a fire extinguisher first. (Remember, you have already reviewed which extinguisher type to use, and how to use the ones in your kitchen. Now is not the time to learn this.)
Most building codes require commercial kitchens and public dining areas have at least two exits. Know where they are. If you work in a large area with multiple exits, make sure you know where the closest exits are in every part of the building.
- On your first day, ask the chef or manager what the evacuation plan is for the building and your work area, the restrooms, and the break area. Ask if there is a specific meeting place after leaving the building.
- If the evacuation alarm goes on DO NOT presume it is a drill. Treat it like the real thing. If any instructions are being broadcast, follow them.
- Do not panic. Do not run.
- If you can turn off the electrical or gas equipment you are using without delaying you getting out of the building, then do so. (For example, if you are sauteing, you can turn off the burner as you turn to walk to the door. However, if you are standing by the door and your cake is at the other end of the kitchen in the oven, don’t walk back to turn off the oven.
- Do not waste time grabbing personal items from the locker room or other parts of the kitchen. They can be replaced, you can’t.
- Go to your assigned assembly spot. If you are in another part of the building, exit through the closest doors that are safe to use, and go to your assembly spot by walking around outside. Don’t cut through the building to go back to your area to get to the assembly spot.
- Stay out of the way of first responders.
- If you are evacuating because of any type of criminal action, run with your hands up, being sure to leave all knives, etc. in the kitchen.
To reiterate, teaching OSHA safety is not fun or exciting. Learning OSHA safety is not appealing to your students. I explained to my students that if they get injured, they won’t be able to cook for some time and that isn’t fun. You need to make sure your students understand the best way to keep cooking is to keep safe every moment they are in the kitchen.
Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE, has been a culinary instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 16 years.