The Surprising Connection Between Lost Time and Your Latte

'Barista wrist' is a very real thing. Starbucks' manager of claims explains its impact and gives insight into other restaurant risks outside the coffee shop.
By: | January 10, 2019

The national demand for lattes comes at a steep cost to workers and business owners, according to the AmTrust Restaurant Risk Report 2018. The claims data, compiled between 2013 and 2017 by workers’ compensation insurance provider AmTrust Financial Services, Inc., reveals that wrist injuries suffered by coffee shop employees — often referred to as “barista wrist” — resulted in an average of 366 days off work, the highest amount of lost time among all restaurant types.

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Far from a caffeine-induced myth, barista wrist has been widely accepted by both the food service and medical communities as a legitimate health risk. Starbucks Coffee Company first observed a rising number of nerve compression and repetitive stress injuries in the mid-2000s, said the Noreen Olson, manager of claims, risk management for Starbucks.

“Awkward positions of the hands and wrists with frequent forceful repetition can contribute to the development of strains, chronic inflammation and nerve compression,” said Olson.

“Nerve compression injuries not caused by a trauma, such as a fall, are often multi-factorial. This type of condition can arise independently or in combination with anatomic features, chronic health conditions and work factors.”

Symptoms of barista wrist include upper extremity pain, stiffness, throbbing, cramping, weakness and numbness.

Olson said if these are reported early, employers can make adjustments to the work process to eliminate discomfort and reduce risk. Left untreated, severe cases of barista wrist can require
surgery and up to 12 weeks of leave from work for recovery.

Noreen Olson, manager of claims, risk management, Starbucks Coffee Company

Because coffee shop managers tend to rely on part-time baristas, the challenge is to cover those shifts seamlessly.

“At the same time, the injured barista’s routines and income are disrupted by the injury, creating new stressors at the precise moment their focus should be on healing and returning to work,” Olson said. “Everyone struggles when any one member of the team is injured.”

At Starbucks, a team of safety professionals has worked within OSHA standards to reduce risk factors and injuries by improving both the physical work environment and the administrative oversight of employee roles and responsibilities. Their efforts have won them a 2018 Risk & Insurance® Teddy Award for their dedication to reducing workers’ comp risks.

“We’ve engineered solutions to eliminate awkward and forceful repetitive movements while crafting espresso beverages, such as tamping ground coffee, repositioning syrups and additives within the safe reach envelope of the arm and forearm, and redesigned ice scoops to reduce wrist movements out of neutral,” Olson said.

Injury Type and Severity Factor Heavily in Lost Time

Restaurants are high-pressure, high-speed work environments, and barista wrist is just one of many food service-related ailments that put employees at risk. Among the 84,000 claims analyzed in AmTrust’s report, a third involved cuts, punctures and scrapes that can occur during peeling, mincing, dicing and exposure to sharp equipment as well as broken dishes and glasses.

Also common are burns from boiling water, fryers and hot equipment, and surfaces and eye injuries from chemical burns, grease spatter and food particles.

Muscle strains and sprains associated with standing for long periods of time and lifting objects totaled $124.1 million in paid claims. Barbecue restaurant workers hauling heavy goods appeared especially susceptible to these injuries, losing more than two months for “strains from lifting.”

While less frequent, far more expensive falls and slips on greasy and wet floors or loose mats resulted in $198.4 million in paid claims, about 4.5 times more in losses than cuts, punctures and scrapes. The type and degree of injury will have a direct impact on the time away from work, Olson said.

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“Minor burns, contusions and lacerations that don’t limit proper hand washing won’t result in time away from work beyond the day of injury or the statutory waiting period,” she said.

“More severe injuries, especially those that limit an [employee’s] ability to comply with food safety regulations, such as sutured lacerations, serious burns, and casting or splinting may result in longer periods away from work consistent with healing. For a sutured wound, this is roughly two weeks. For a fracture or strain that requires casting or splinting, it could be 8 to 12 weeks or longer.”

The report found that the average injured food service employee returns to work within 30 days, with the highest number of accidents occurring in the summertime.

However, the overall number of loss claims was down in the past decade, suggesting that insured restaurant owners are proactively implementing safety practices and procedures to reduce employee injury. &

Elisa Ludwig is a contract writer based outside Philadelphia. She has written extensively about cybersecurity issues for the Junto blog on the eRiskHub. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]