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OSHA and Your Restaurant Safety

Aug 17, 2007
OSHA is the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration. They cover the totality of workplaces, not just restaurants. Created in 1970 by president Richard Nixon, Its mission is to prevent work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths by issuing and enforcing standards for workplace safety.

OSHA is regarded as being a heavy-handed authority. Their fines are legendary, and their regulations (as with any federal agency) may not always make perfect sense to the restaurant owner, but sensible or no, they have to be followed. To understand why the agency is so authoritarian, you have to consider what they were born out of.

Previous to OSHA, there was no broad regulatory agency, but the industrial age had gone booming ahead without one. So workplace death, injury, and infection was rampant. Consider that the work-related deaths for the Panama Canal project was 27,500, for the Hoover Dam project was 96, and for the Union Pacific Coal Mine in Hanna, Wyoming (1903) was 1,234, to name just three random examples. If a regulatory board can force employers to take a less cavalier approach to the safety of their workforce, that is a noble goal by any means.

Whether by taking steps to prevent employee slips and falls or by making information available to employees about chemicals in the workplace, OSHA oversees the day-to-day safety of restaurants as well. OSHA writes and enforces the federal rules. In addition, some individual states also run their own state-regulated branch of OSHA, with their permission and oversight.

One example of OSHA regulation is the Material Safety Data Sheet system. OSHA has specs for virtually anything that comes in a bottle, bucket, or can, from insecticide to bleach to compressed air. The data sheets track every possible hazard of use of the substance, including inhalation, ingestion, skin contact, eye contact, and flammability. The data sheets will also include guidelines for the safe handling of the substance and treatment if injury occurs. Any substance that you keep on your premises, OSHA wants to be sure you know how to keep a level of safety in regards to its handling.

OSHA generally only makes on-site inspections either for vary large operations, such as a power plant, or in the event of a complaint. A complaint about unsafe practices can be registered against your business by anybody at all, under conditions of complete anonymity. However, upon first starting a restaurant location and acquiring necessary permits and licenses, your business will undergo some initial inspection by the Health Department or other regulatory agency which works in partnership or under the supervision of OSHA.

In the case of very minor complaints, OSHA may only contact you by telephone or mail about the violation, and a designated spokesperson - usually someone of management level - will be responsible for working with them until your business is brought into compliance, whatever that will take. However, the more common action is an on-site inspection, whether with prior notification or unannounced.

In the case of an inspection, you should once again have a designated person to accompany the inspector. There is actually less to passing an OSHA inspection than you might first think. A lot of workplace safety is simply common sense, and OSHA will usually be satisfied if you have no apparent hazards and at least one member of your staff knows the proper procedures, where to find the data and records for material hazards, what the workplace safety policies are, have written safety manuals, and so forth. You also have the right to accompany the inspector, take notes, and ask to see a copy of the complaint lodged against you.

You are expected to provide the inspector with all requested documents, investigate the source of all safety hazards, and immediately correct any hazard encountered during the inspection. After the inspection, which is often just the beginning of a long multi-step process, it is advisable to contact a lawyer in case further actions result.

The four leading categories of kitchen injuries are slips and falls, strains and sprains, cuts and lacerations, and burns. Various studies made of restaurant injuries show that their categories break down to about 35% for burns, 34% for slips and falls, 15% for exposure to harmful substances or environment, 10% injuries from overexertion from lifting, and 5% for cuts and lacerations. Floor surfaces play a role in 28% of restaurant injuries. And the overwhelming place where these injuries occur is in the kitchen.

One cause that is identified for kitchen injuries is people moving quickly and in a rush to meet demand. During the lunch and dinner rushes, the kitchen can become a hectic place, where careless slices can nick a thumb, fumbles with pots can spill boiling water, overloaded oil fryers can splash hot oil, and hurried running over slick floor surfaces can result in a fall. This is the most common case in fast-food type environments.

The cost to a business isn't just a matter of paying OSHA fines. Worker's Compensation claims are also a huge drain on restaurant revenue. Some restaurant owners, fed up with paying for costly accidents, will actually ask their insurance carrier to send a safety manager to inspect their facility and make suggestions on how accidents can be avoided. This is a good idea if your workplace has a poor safety record, because an inspector can recommend new methods and ideas that you never thought to try.
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