The concept of planning and engineering foodservice facilities developed into an academic discipline during the 1950s and ’60s. Some of the major components of this new field included the study of human factors engineering, time–motion studies, and workflow design. As foodservice planning became more important and facility requirements more complex, the emphasis expanded to include other concerns like space programming, incorporation of new technologies, documentation of utility services and project management.
Today’s changing foodservice environment challenges both equipment manufacturers and facilities planners to place renewed attention on the human factors related to their products. Updated OSHA regulations, concerns with injuries from repetitive movements, and product safety and liability issues all point to workplace ergonomics as an important aspect of any facility planning effort.
Even the stature of the average foodservice worker can no longer be assumed to be an abstract median size. Although men once dominated this industry, a re-evaluation of many of the old standards is required because of the wide range of height, reach, and sheer physical size of both male and female employees. The ability to provide the optimum height and reach placement of equipment and storage containers has a significant effect on workers’ comfort as they perform repetitive tasks.
As an example, there has been a trend toward building elementary school food-serving counters 30 inches high for the last 20 years. For children in the lower elementary grades, sliding trays and reaching food is much easier at this height than a traditional 36-inch counter. Unfortunately, this change has created a challenge for the adults who serve the food: back problems are a common outcome for the servers in this environment.
Staffers working at preparation tables that are either too low or high can also suffer from a variety of lower back irritation and injuries. One factor often missed in evaluating the optimum work height is not considering the actual working surface — it’s not just the countertop. Working on top of a two-inch-thick cutting board that sits on a 36-inch high worktable can significantly affect the comfort and productivity of shorter employees who would be more comfortable working on that same 2-inch cutting board that sits on a 32-inch-high table instead.
Problems like these can easily be addressed with relatively simple solutions. Service counters can be designed so that the height of the self-service areas (like milk coolers), remain at a 30-inch height, but areas requiring staff service (like hot food pans) can be elevated to a more standard 34-inch or 36-inch height. In preparation areas, adjustable height stainless steel worktables offered by some manufacturers accommodate various heights, including employees who may be more productive working from stools rather than standing for prolonged periods. When work areas or equipment are higher than 36 inches, the placement of thick rubber floor mats can raise the employee one to two inches higher, making the work position more comfortable.
A major component of planning effective workstation ergonomics is providing reasonable reachability for items stored on shelves. Sometimes the location of these items is determined by installers based on what their comfort level would be rather than what is best for the customer. A common feature in European kitchen equipment is a built-in accommodation for easy adjustment of shelving and wall-mounted devices. While this is less common in North American kitchens, a wide variety of adjustable products are available at a reasonable cost. Wall storage and workstation systems from the major shelving manufacturers offer the flexibility to easily change the location of the most commonly accessed items.
The height of storage containers and pot racks can be made adjustable if these devices are specified to attach to tables through collars, rather than welded in one fixed position. Adjustments can then be made after-the-fact using set screws in the collar that holds the support tubing in place.
Making movement more efficient
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Providing the right aisle widths between commonly accessed workstations can add or subtract hundreds of feet of extra motion during a typical workday. For example, if a worker must move back and forth across a 48-inch aisle from a cooking line to the parallel refrigerated service counter once per minute, it adds 60 feet of extra travel every hour. In an eight-hour shift this can amount to almost 500 feet of unproductive motion, or almost a mile per week. Aisle width is particularly critical in areas like busy cooking lines and bars where access to a work aisle occurs continuously. In these applications, aisle widths should never exceed 36 inches. Exceptions to this rule would be areas in front of exceptionally hot equipment like wood-fired grills, or in front of pizza ovens where it may take 48 inches or more to move a pizza peel in and out of the oven cavity.
In work areas not requiring 36-inch width, a 32-inch wide aisle can provide an efficient work environment. Some operators and bartenders advocate for 28-inch aisles, saying they are the optimum width for a busy service or public bar. If aisles are less than 36 inches, consider the reach into under-counter refrigerators where doors or drawers may extend 28 inches to 30 inches into the aisle. One way of allowing better access to under-counter warmers and refrigeration is to use sliding doors rather than swing doors or drawers, particularly for chefs’ tables. Using refrigerated drawers with a side-by-side pan arrangement, rather than front to back pans, reduces the extension necessary to access both pans by at least five inches. Not only does this make it easier to access the full drawer without needing to move to the side; it also allows for the drawer slides to carry more weight. The farther a fully loaded refrigerated drawer is extended during use, the more likely it will fail. Side-by-side refrigerated drawers are available as a standard option on most refrigerated bases.
Few areas of foodservice require more careful ergonomic planning than tray or plate assembly and scraping areas for soiled dishes. Commonly used in healthcare, hotel/event banqueting, and airline food service, a rapidly moving tray or plate assembly line can significantly improve productivity, assuming the worker can easily access both the product and the serving dish. With traditional assembly conveyors, hot and cold food servers were placed perpendicular to the conveyor line, like branches on a tree. Servers were forced to turn a full 90 degrees as they served each plate or tray moving down along the conveyor. New ergonomic designs for volume-plated meal assembly now incorporate slim-width service modules that are placed parallel to the conveyor, which is cantilevered over the modules. While this eliminates the 90-degree turn, ensuring standard dimensions like optimum reach and work height become critical.
A number of manufacturers have tried to adapt conventional equipment (designed for perpendicular installations) to parallel layouts. They solve one problem and create another by forcing the server to reach over a too-wide service counter. Attempting to retrofit an existing system to a parallel approach may backfire: well-designed parallel systems have narrow hot and cold wells that fit under the plating table or conveyor. While these parallel assembly systems can offer significant benefits in productivity and reduce the overall width of an assembly area, any gains may be lost if the ergonomics of the system is compromised by poor design.
At the end of an assembly line, a mechanical cart positioner that automatically raises and lowers the loading racks for plates and trays takes the stress off a person’s back.
Soiled dish handling areas are dependent on good ergonomic planning to function well. With the increase in glassware items (an example is the popularity of beer and wine flights), reaching for overhead glass racks is challenging. Energy and water expenses, however, demand that each rack be fully loaded before entering the dishwasher, so easy access to all racks is critical. Potential solutions include overhead glass racks that tilt to remove the rack, circulator glass accumulating tables (popular in Europe), and glass washers installed under the soiled dish table. Pot sinks with built-in agitators greatly reduce the need to bend over and scrub soiled pots and pans.
Claims for work-related repetitive strain injuries are increasing at the same time that workers are asked to provide more production in shorter time periods, so ergonomic design should be a strong consideration in food-service design and equipment selection. Take the time to investigate the products and solutions available in the marketplace.