Stepping Into the Kitchen: Foot Protection for Food Service Workers

Feb. 15, 2007
Slips and falls account for almost half the workers' compensation costs in the food service industry. An effective and well-rounded foot protection program is the answer to bringing those numbers down.

A busy commerical kitchen – in a hotel, a fast food restaurant or the best restaurant in town – could be one of the most dangerous places to work. Slippery floors, knives and other sharp tools, hot surfaces, heavy pieces of moveable equipment, awkward food packages and congested quarters are all invitations for injuries. Add to that mix of dangers the rush of activity during lunch or dinnertime and there is a perfect recipe for a disastrous and costly accident.

Despite all the existing dangers in the kitchen, slips and falls are the leading hazards for restaurant and hospitality kitchens, accounting for 34 percent of all restaurant worker injury cases, according to a survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1994, and slips and falls and other kitchen accidents account for the majority of workers’ compensation claims in the food service industry. According to the Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, falls account for 45 percent of workers’ compensation claim costs in restaurants, making foot protection a useful tool for safety professionals looking to reduce slips and falls.

The numbers are understated, says Steve DiPilla, director of research and development for risk control services for ESIS Inc., a Philadelphia-based provider of insurance products. One of the key issues with slips and falls is that they cause a host of back, knee, head, wrist and other musculoskeletal injuries that require long-term care. Therefore, accident rates are classified by injury type instead of cause of injury in workers’ compensation claims.

“If you look at a kitchen environment, a slip and fall can turn into a lot of things, such as a back injury, a bump in the head or even a fatal wound,” explains DiPilla. “Who knows how many slip-and-fall cases have actually happened.”

It Starts with the Shoe

As more employers see the benefits of slip-resistant footwear in reducing slip-and-fall incidents and have begun buying the product, more and more shoes labeled as slip resistant are entering the market. David Natalizia, founder of Dynamic Safety Inc., a consulting firm specializing in accident prevention and slip, trip and falls, warns that many of the shoes that prominently are advertised as slip resistant don’t live up to their advertising claims.

“The big caution is that very prominently advertised and marketed shoes out there are billed as slip resistant, but only have mediocre performance,” says Natalizia. “Some of the widely available shoes, unfortunately, may come out with one good batch or shoe model, but [will] be less effective with another batch or model.”

Natalizia recommends that employers, especially those who run large operations, do their homework and make sure that the shoes and the manufacturer have a good track record. One way to make sure of that is to test them via an independent laboratory.

DiPilla notes that when measuring a shoe’s performance, there are two notable features of slip-resistant shoes that make them unique to regular street footwear: materials and the design of the sole. According to DiPilla, the material is softer and designed for durability, as the softer compounds more effectively can grab a floor surface.

In addition, tread patterns significantly can affect slip-resistance performance. Tread patterns that run in the direction of travel are ill-advised, according to DiPilla, as they tend to accentuate – rather than slow down – forward motion. Also, it is important to avoid patterns that are closed-in, as these can trap water and other liquids, which DiPilla says increases the likelihood of slips.

If the Shoe Works, Wear It

Shoe comfort also is an important aspect of safety, according to Terry McKnight, co-founder of the Northern California-based slip-resistant shoe manufacturer Kingston McKnight, which caters to the hospitality industry.

“Comfort increases energy and thus increases safety,” he explains. “To feel comfortable in the shoe that you are in is to be safe.”
Randy Lubart, senior vice president, sales, for West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Shoes for Crews LLC, has one more feature to add to create what he calls the “ideal shoe.”

“If you are asking for an ideal footwear for the food service industry, it would be a three-quarter top – something that covers the ankle bone, just high enough to protect that sensitive bone,” he says. “If a chef is carrying a heavy pan and it lands on the ankle bone, he could be crippled for days or even more.”

Shoe Purchasing Programs

More and more food service operators are not tolerating safety infractions and are safeguarding their employees against injuries. To do that, companies such as Marriott International Inc. are instituting cost-sharing programs to help employees buy slip-resistant safety shoes.
“We deem workplace safety very important and for that reason we do a lot of training for safety and recommend appropriate apparel,” explains Dan Hoffman, director of equipment and beverage specifications for Marriott International.

Hoffman, who manages more than 175,000 hotel associates worldwide, explains that when a hotel food worker starts working in one of the Marriott hotels, the corporate offices strongly recommend that employees purchase the shoe the hotel chain recommends. Marriott facilitates the purchase with payroll deductions and in some cases, having a shoemobile come to the hotel.

Although the company does not “officially” mandate employees purchase the recommended shoes, the footwear is considered part of their uniform and workers refusing to wear slip-resistant shoes are not allowed to work unless the proper footwear is purchased.

DiPilla says many companies purchase shoes for their workers, a move he approves, as he feels employers should look at protective footwear as mandatory personal protective equipment and part of the uniform.

“This approach can eliminate many excuses and is more likely to result in the footwear being perceived as part of the uniform,” more effectively ensuring daily use, DiPilla says.

Foot Protection Shouldn’t End with the Shoe

Lubart points out that often food service employers are convinced that they effectively have protected their employees from slips and falls and other kitchen hazards by providing good-quality footwear.

There is more to an effective foot protection program than the shoe, according to DiPilla. Maintenance, replacement and general administration of footwear programs are essential to a successful slip-and-fall prevention program, he says. Keeping floors dry and clean, encouraging employees to walk rather than run and checking to make sure employees are wearing slip-resistant footwear all contribute to a safer workplace.

Natalizia recommends that restaurants have at least one mat available so that workers can clean the soles of their shoes. He suggests employers look into a variety of floor treatment and cleaning products that greatly can minimize slips and falls. He even suggests training workers on how to walk when crossing the kitchen, how to avoid bumping into one another during hectic time intervals and how to walk around obstacles.

“A food service manager has to remember that you do not want to stick to one, single-factor solution when it comes to having a slip, trip and fall prevention program,” says Natalizia. “Even the best operations usually have some room to tighten up, to execute better and gain confidence in having the best program possible.”

Sidebar: Offering More than Just Shoes

Steve DiPilla, director of research and development for risk control services for ESIS Inc., suggests all food service industry employers institute a full-fledged foot protection program. He offers several steps for maximizing foot protection success and effectiveness.

1) Require the shoe: A company’s policy should require all employees to come to work with their required slip-resistant footwear, DiPilla says. Although he admits that this could be difficult, especially if a facility is short-handed, enforcing this will ensure that that employees comply with company rules.

2) Inspection and maintenance: Footwear, DiPilla says, should be checked for cleanliness and condition on a daily basis. Employers should let their workers know that work shoes only should be worn indoors. Wearing slip-resistant footwear outside reduces the life of the footwear and degrades its slip-resistant qualities, according to DiPilla.

3) Implementing a replacement schedule: It’s unavoidable that slip-resistant shoes eventually get worn down, so DiPilla suggests creating a system to track shoe replacement. Shoe replacement should occur 6 to 12 months after each new purchase, he says.

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