The importance of barista wrist assessment

BeanScene explores the physical challenges of barista work and discovers why prevention is better than cure.

When we think of physically demanding jobs, labourers, fire fighters, lumberjacks and farmers come to mind. But spare a thought for baristas. Just because they don’t lift large volumes of bricks, or cover hundreds of kilometres a day, doesn’t mean their work isn’t taking its toll.

Each week, baristas spend hours on their feet – grinding, tamping and serving coffee. Most are exposed to awkward hand movements and must exert excessive force through their wrists, forearms, elbows, and back.

According to the Australian Government Australian Safety and Compensation Council, hand and wrist injuries are the most common work-related injury type. They account for one third of all workplace injuries, and result in about 8,400 hospital admissions each year, of which 3.3 per cent are specific to the café, hotel and restaurant industry. The injuries range from being relatively minor to very severe, with open wounds the most common, followed by superficial wounds, burns, crushes, sprains and fractures.

Karen Fitt, Director of Melbourne Hand Rehab and President of the Australian Hand Therapy Association, says baristas make up many of the hospitality workers that have visited her clinic over the years. She says the most common barista-specific practices that lead to injuries include:

  • manual tamping
  • putting the portafilter into the grouphead with force
  • whacking the coffee puck out of the group handle
  • tight grip

“Baristas are accustomed to awkward non-neutral postures and manoeuvres that predispose them to injury,” Karen says. “Their work can be very taxing on the body.”

Manual tamping is one of the most significant causes of injury. Karen notes it has been shown to cause shoulder and back pain as a result of the awkward shoulder posture of baristas – in front of the body with elbow bent and excessive force directed through the wrist as they press into the tamp. She says the action of putting a portafilter into a grouphead can also lead to injury because it involves using “a supinated, or awkward palm-up posture” opposed to a midline forearm.

“It’s not a neutral position for the forearm and at its end of range can cause strain and pain,” Karen says.

A 2014 study, titled Prevalence of occupation-related pain among baristas, describes an examination of lower back and shoulder demand during the preparation of espresso-based beverages. The prevalence of lower back pain (LBP) and shoulder pain was studied via questionnaire among 59 Canadian baristas. Ten were video-recorded for biomechanical analysis while making espresso, and cumulative and peak lower back loads and shoulder moments were calculated.

Seventy-three per cent of those who completed the questionnaire reported having experienced LBP, and half attributed this pain to their job as a barista. Sixty-eight per cent reported having experienced shoulder pain and half also attributed this pain to their job. In addition, 79.7 per cent of respondents experienced pain in their feet, with standing identified as the second most commonly reported activity of baristas to cause pain, second to lifting. Some baristas also reported neck, upper back, wrist, elbow and knee pain as a result of their work.

Bowen Holden, Owner of Patricia Coffee Brewers in Melbourne, relates to this strain. After 15 years working behind a coffee machine, Bowen hates to think of the thousands of hours he’s spent standing on his feet, and the amount of times he’s manual tamped ground coffee. He’s experienced his fair share of workplace “niggles,” but when a shoulder injury flared up – not entirely a result of barista work – the thought of using his body to manual tamp every day was almost enough to see him sidelined from the profession he loved.

“Barista work is repetitive,” Bowen says. “It’s not a job many people consider to be physically demanding, but when you’re busy, intensity builds, you tighten up, and your movements become heightened and rushed. All that self-awareness of how to look after your body and use correct practices goes out the window.”

More commonly, barista work tends to cross over into other actions and activities such as lifting, and tray or plate carrying. If done regularly, it can also lead to elbow and wrist pain as a result of excessive weight and non-neutral carrying positions.

A Safe Work Australia report, studying injuries and illnesses between 2010–11 and 2012–13 found body stressing led to the highest proportion of serious claims in the workforce. Nearly half of all body stressing disorders arose from muscular stress while lifting, carrying or putting down objects, with injuries to the hand, fingers and thumb the most common that led to serious claims. Safe Work Australia records around 7,000 serious body-stressing claims per year.

The Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012–2022 has identified the accommodation and food services industry, which includes baristas, as a priority to reduce the high number of work-related injuries and illnesses. The Strategy aims to reduce the incidence of serious injury by at least 30 per cent nationwide by 2022, and states the accommodation and food services industry will play a critical role in meeting this target.

Karen of Melbourne Hand Rehab says it’s important for workers to speak up about their pain, and for employers to create a safe environment for their staff to discuss their symptoms.

“No one should feel ashamed to admit they’re feeling sore as a result of their work,” Karen says. “‘I’m sore’ is not an injury. ‘I’m sore’ is not a reason for employers to fear a Workers Compensation Claim. It’s just about opening up the dialogue of conversation so that a solution can be addressed.

“Those new to the barista profession need to be aware they are putting an increased load on their body. In those first few weeks, new employees are less likely to speak up but they’re the ones that need to build their endurance. If you’ve never done the work before, of course you’ll feel strain, your body is not used to non-neutral positions, just as a non-runner would feel aches and pains after their first few runs. You need to build up slowly to achieve the longer distance.”

Prevention, however, is the best cure. Aside from regular stretching (see examples below), Karen says there are simple ways to make effective changes in your workplace, including adjusting the height of workstations so baristas don’t have to over- or under-extend their posture with the rotation of their trunk and neck over a long period.

Karen says many people associate sitting to be “the new smoking,” but standing for long periods of time can also result in leg and back pain. She recommends moving around every 10 to 15 minutes for 30 seconds to stop work-related aches and pains in their tracks before they turn into injuries.

The most effective treatment, Karen says, is being aware of the dangers of force, removing the stress, and working in more neutral positions.

“Most musculoskeletal injuries, strains and pain to the shoulder and wrist respond really well to ergonomic advice and won’t be a long-term problem,” she says. “If you suffer from elbow pain, however, make sure you get it seen by a health professional straight away as elbow injuries can be slightly degenerative.

Karen recommends the following solutions:
•  Be aware if you’re gripping the group handle tightly and loosen the grip
•  Rather than wrenching your wrist sideways to lock your portafilter into the group head or tapping the puck out of the portafilter, perform the action a little more slowly and use minimal force.
•  Try changing the position of your wrist, such as holding the group handle with the side of your wrist, not palm up or palm down.
•  To manual tamp, use your whole body including your trunk and arm, to perform the movement and step into the action with your front leg. Leaning transfers weight within the body so it’s not localised to one position.

To avoid the injuries associated with manual tamping, automatic tamping device Puqpress has become a popular option for cafés across the country.

This article features in the October 2017 edition of BeanScene Magazine.

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