Local New Jersey officials integrate worker safety into restaurant inspections; collect new insights on occupational risks

Food safety is at the top of the list for local restaurant inspectors in Rockaway Township, New Jersey. Recently, however, inspectors tested out the feasibility of adding a new safety checkpoint to the menu — the safety of restaurant employees. The effort was a success and one that organizers hope will ultimately lead to safer working conditions for food service workers statewide.

“Workers need a voice,” said Peter Tabbot, health officer for the Rockaway Township Division of Health. “This is a small way that we can help provide a bit of that voice.”

The new occupational health and safety effort is a collaboration between the Division of Health and the Office of Public Health Practice at Rutgers School of Public Health. According to Mitchel Rosen, director of the Office of Public Health Practice, he and his colleagues had been discussing the idea of integrating workplace safety into the restaurant inspection process for some time and approached the health department about piloting such an intervention. The result is a 16-point checklist (adapted from a similar effort in San Francisco) that takes less than 10 minutes to implement on site as well as new data and insights into the potential — and preventable — hazards that workers face.

Tabbot said that because health department inspectors are the only ones routinely monitoring health and safety at local restaurants, they’re uniquely positioned to improve worker safety.

In a presentation about the effort during the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) 142nd Annual Meeting last November in New Orleans, Rosen and Tabbot noted that there are few studies on the occupational health and safety risks facing restaurant workers, who are often foreign-born, typically earn low wages and are rarely unionized. At the same time, restaurant workers often work long hours in hazardous environments and many don’t receive proper safety training, lack health insurance and don’t have access to paid leave for illness and injury. According to a 2012 report from the Center for Poverty Research and Center for Health Care Policy and Research at the University of California-Davis, in 2010, food service and preparation workers experienced workplace-related injuries and illnesses that cost more than $2 billion in medical care and lost productivity. Restaurant workers can experience a range of work-related injuries, such as cuts, burns, strains, sprains and other musculoskeletal injuries.

“One reason we did this is because we don’t have a lot of information (on restaurant workers) other than national statistics, but we know there’s a significant occupational group at risk here,” Tabbot told me. “We know there are risks, but we also know it’s a group that wouldn’t necessarily reach out to the health department.”

Rockaway inspectors (officially known as environmental health specialists) piloted the new workplace safety checklist from September 2013 to February 2014 during the regular inspections of full-service restaurants. During that pilot period, 47 of the jurisdiction’s 232 full-service restaurants received an inspection that included the new workplace safety checklist. The checklist, which was developed to facilitate an observational assessment that doesn’t require inspectors to interview workers or management, included questions such as:

  • Do workers have dry potholders, gloves, mitts or rags to prevent burns?
  • Are range tops overcrowded with cookware?
  • Are there non-slip mats/floors? Is there proper storage for knives?
  • Is there adequate ventilation?
  • Do slicing machines, grinders or food processors have machine guards?
  • Are minimum wage and worker’s compensation posters visible where employees can read them?

Rosen said that collecting baseline workplace safety information was a primary goal of the pilot project as well as determining whether inspectors could easily integrate the checklist into their work. In fact, Tabbot and Rosen said inspectors were involved in the project from the beginning to ensure that the new checklist wouldn’t compromise their relationships with restaurant owners or impede their primary duties. Tabbot noted that engaging inspectors from the start was key to gaining their active support.

“Because we included them from the very first discussion, we had their buy-in from the get-go,” Tabbot said. “They really invested themselves in it and really did embrace it.”

During the APHA meeting, Tabbot and Rosen presented the results of the pilot project. Here are some of the findings:

  • 58 percent of restaurants inspected did not display posters with minimum wage information where workers could read them
  • 62 percent did not visibly display worker’s compensation posters
  • 62 percent did use non-slip mats
  • 61 percent employed proper storage for knives
  • 83 percent did not have anything blocking the exits
  • 65 percent had fully stocked first aid kits available to workers
  • 71 percent used dry potholders to prevent burns.

Overall, Rosen said about two-thirds of restaurants included in the pilot project scored “fairly well” on the safety checklist.

“But we can do better than that and we should be doing better than that,” he told me.

Because the pilot phase zeroed in on collecting information, inspectors did not discuss checklist results with owners or managers unless they observed an imminent danger, such as a blocked exit, Tabbot said. Plus, there are few restaurant-related occupational health and safety standards on the books that local public health officials can actually enforce, he noted. (Rosen added that there were no legal issues involved with piloting the checklist, which was well within the authority of local public health officials.)

While Rosen and Tabbot said new regulations aren’t always the answer — for example, because local inspectors have such good relationships with restaurant owners, simply making safety recommendations could result in safer work environments — they said expanded use of the checklist as well as richer data could impact policy. For instance, Rosen noted that if more health departments adopt the checklist and gather related workplace safety data, local health officials could make a much stronger case for developing more robust statewide protections for restaurant workers.

The Rockaway Township Division of Health plans to continue using the safety checklist later this year.

“A lot of times, workers don’t know they deserve any rights — they’re happy to have a job or find it difficult to speak up and say ‘we need better protections,’” Rosen told me. “But (a project like this) takes the burden off the worker and puts more of the burden on the owner to ensure a safe and healthy workplace.”

To access an abstract about the pilot project, click here. To read more about the integration of food safety and worker rights, read our previous coverage of efforts in San Francisco.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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