Dishin' That: The hazards of hospitality

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A couple of weeks ago, an unusual call went out to everyone in the biz.

After sharing my tale of a chronic, worn-and-torn industry injury, followed by a weather-related fender-bender, I’m on the DL (“Dishin’ That: Can I get a hand?”). Knowing I’m not alone, I asked hospitality folks to share their own stories of bruises, bumps and burns, along with reactions from their higher-ups.

Responses came stealthily.

My Facebook private-message box got a few hits, war stories were left on my cell and some were recounted in person. As varied as they were in nature and severity, everyone wanted to wear the cloak of anonymity. Much of what I heard came from people in management positions, and one bartender pinky-swore me to confidentiality while he jockeys for more hours this summer.

Before making monsters out of restaurant owners, I’m going on the record: Most are compassionate and law-abiding when it comes to the safety and well-being of their staff. Workers’ compensation and accident/injury liability are built into the cost of doing business.

An owner’s perceived insensitivity to a mishap often stems from the frustration of having to run short-handed, especially if the injured is a skilled kitchen-worker or a key front-of-the-house person.

But people aren’t interested in what goes right when someone is hurt in a restaurant. Regardless of whether safety protocol is followed, people like hearing about the dirty laundry. And there’s plenty of it flapping in the breeze.

Some of the reports from the trenches were innocent in nature. A few random cucumber peels hit the floor and a dish dog slips, taking down a stack of bread plates. “Do you know how (expletive) expensive those dishes are? Be more careful,” the chef/owner bellows across the open kitchen. The 17-year-old dish dog messes up his elbow and is done playing varsity basketball for the year.

But more common were incidents that one person called “insidious.” Uneven, icy steps lead the way to a recycling dumpster and a distant smoking area. Both are visited often. Requests for rock salt, sand and a much-needed sweep from the plow guy are ignored. Patches of black ice form under a foot-trodden path, and a full-time server sneaking a butt takes a nasty tumble.

While not seriously injured, she was bruised and sore enough to need a few days off. “I hope you weren’t smoking on my nickel,” was the owner’s initial two cents. Followed up by a dog-eared, photocopied accident report form, the server was asked repeatedly if her partner had insurance.

A prep guy from Freeport recounted the time he was snapped with a wet kitchen towel and sliced off part of his thumb. Wrapping the chunk in plastic and keeping it on ice, he bandaged up the bleeding digit and went to the ER – after completing his closing duties. Luckily, the medical attention was effective, earning him the secret nickname of “Stitch.”

One tale comes from a fast-food manager who was pinned in the back room by a large metal rack, filled with product, that fell on her. Unable to move, she yelled for help for “at least five minutes, but it felt like an hour,” before being discovered by her district manager.

As fate would have it, the DM was visiting stores with someone from the corporate office. After helping the manager climb out from under mess, he gave her an accident report form … and a disciplinary verbal warning.

“It’s your job to ensure everything is secure,” he said. “Someone could have gotten hurt.”

As the snow melts and tourists arrive, such injuries and accidents will increase. Inexperienced workers and veterans alike will be under pressure and act hastily. Charming old buildings, now housing restaurants – and often grandfathered from necessary safety improvements – are filled with potentially dangerous staircases and unsafe crannies.

So let’s be careful out there. Running short of column material on this topic would be a welcome 86 to my menu of hospitality tidbits.

Peas & Q’s

Next week’s column will be dedicated solely to a slew of questions about children in restaurants. Parental warning: PG, this isn’t.

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Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to nladd@theforecaster.net, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @natalieladd.

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