By Gavin Scarr-Hall, Director of Health & Safety at Peninsula (www.peninsulagrouplimited.com)

What challenges does the hospitality sector face with health and safety?
For many businesses, it’s no small achievement simply to be reopening the doors after a prolonged series of lockdowns, restrictions, and general anxiety around going out.

The pandemic has seen significant change, with experienced workers leaving hospitality for other sectors, and employers finding it difficult to replace them. Figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that hospitality businesses are more than twice as likely as other industries to struggle filling vacancies.

That said, the hospitality industry is still the third biggest employment sector in the UK. Many new recruits are inexperienced and new to the industry, which can leave them vulnerable to common hazards, such as slips and trips, fires, and manual handling.

Customers are another key focus, with businesses needing to re-establish trust with a population that’s been conditioned to stay away from crowded places over the last two years. Many venues have banked on their good safety record as a way of enticing custom back inside. It’s a smart strategy, but health and safety doesn’t begin and end with COVID-19.

The outdoor spaces that were vital to keeping venues compliant with restrictions now have to consider how they impact safety.

If you’ve invested in permanent outdoor facilities with outdoor heaters, have you updated your fire risk assessment to incorporate this new source of ignition? What about the slip and trip hazards presented by these new physical structures? Safety management has to be looked at from all angles.

Why is it so important to address health and safety right now?

As people return to socialising and spending money on nights out, hospitality is in a precarious position. On the one hand, any boost in custom is welcome after two years of closures and restrictions. There’s clearly a strong appetite with public confidence around visiting pubs, bars, and restaurants double where it was in early 2021.

On the other hand, customers are now more conscious of hygiene and infection than ever, shining a safety spotlight wherever they go. Social media – a vital tool for promotion in the industry – can also be used to document bad practice to a worldwide audience. Add in the widespread staff shortages, and safety compliance can look unattainable and unaffordable for many.

The danger comes when businesses see safety as an acceptable area in which to cut corners or cost. Any intake of new employees should mean investment in training. Lack of experience, lack of familiarity with the work environment and inability to spot common hazards makes new starters far more vulnerable.

Many don’t even cut these corners on purpose.

Recent cases for the hospitality industry highlight how small and large companies who do not follow health and safety procedures put workers at risk.

A 16-year-old girl was employed at a fast-food outlet to cook fries in a fryer. The young worker slipped on water that was leaking from an ice-making machine and instinctively put out her hand to break her fall. Unfortunately her hand went into the deep fat fryer containing oil at a temperature of 360°F and she sustained severe burns to her left hand and forearm. The outlet was short staffed on the day of accident and the Team Leader was working on the tills instead of monitoring workplace safety.

Although the company policy was to mop up spillages it was common practice to leave spillages at busy times and cover them with a sheet of cardboard, which itself can create a tripping hazard. At busy times it was usual to give greater priority to serving customers than to cleaning spillages. The local authority prosecuted the company and on successful conviction the magistrates imposed a total fine of £15000. The investigating Environmental Health Officer believed that the accident was completely avoidable as the company had failed to maintain a safe system of work or to carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks associated with slipping within the kitchen.

McDonalds are another high-profile example. A drive-through meal is always tempting, but at their West Thurrock restaurant the signs for directing traffic were unclear. Management sent a 17-year-old employee outside to direct customers, despite him having no training in directing and controlling traffic.

A motorist became aggressive and drove into the employee, fracturing his knee. It was later discovered that two other employees had been injured directing traffic at the same location. McDonalds’ safety procedures themselves were not in question, but they failed to train their employees on what those procedures were. They were fined £200,000 for failing to provide information, instruction, training, and supervision to employees.

McDonalds failed to recognise that new starters are at higher risk than everyone else in the workplace.
You’re far more likely to have an accident in your first six months than during the whole of the rest of your working life.

That’s why it’s vital to make sure that new starters and young persons (16-18-year-olds) entering your workforce have the proper training to stay safe at work.

How can you reduce risk in the workplace?
Every venue that offers food should take a good look at their fire risk assessment. This is a ‘must’, not a ‘should’. Check that it’s up-to-date and carried out by a competent person. Most fires are avoidable, and your fire risk assessment should give you a detailed, tailored look at what measures are suitable for your premises.

Kitchens are at higher risk than most businesses, as they use gas, naked flames, and flammable substances like cooking oil.

This means staff must have good fire awareness and understand all emergency procedures. You don’t have to empty out the restaurant to carry out a drill; schedule it before opening, so that staff can familiarise themselves with escape routes and raise any concerns.

Running at capacity often means everyone is in a hurry. This is when slips, trips and falls happen. Kitchen and waiting staff are especially at risk, with food spillages, wet floors, and trip hazards aplenty. Manage kitchen safety with a good housekeeping regime, appropriate footwear, and good lighting.

Food spillages can be a double risk – there’s the actual food itself, and then the wet or greasy floor after mopping it up. Consider a two-stage mopping process. First, mix the detergent to the correct amount with hot water, then leave it for a minute or so on the floor before mopping up. This will be much more effective at removing grease than simply mopping the spillage immediately.

Checking everyone wears suitable footwear can take up valuable time. Look into slip-resistant overshoes. These are a great, low-cost solution for kitchens with smooth flooring (typically found in older facilities), and for those kitchens where slip accidents have occurred before.

The key to any control measure’s effectiveness is how well you train your employees to carry it out.

Protect new starters with six steps:
• Assess their capability – what experience do they have? How familiar are they with a fast-paced working environment?
• Set up an induction – use plain, simple language and show them where hazards exist in your workplace with a walkaround tour.
• Keep your control measures up to date and involve employees in discussions about risk.
• Provide information, instruction, and training about risks they may be exposed to, and how they can avoid those risks.
• Supervise new starters and make allowances for common mistakes by providing a safe space, where questions can be asked, and concerns can be raised.
• Check their understanding of the training, and that new starters continue to work safely and know who to go to with concerns about health and safety.

Your workforce might well be freshly delivered or finely matured. Either way, they’re all facing the same challenges, serving the same tables, and have the same responsibility for safety.

Eleanor Roosevelt never did venture into health and safety management. Still, she taught one of the most important lessons for hospitality right now: “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”_