Young Workers United: Occupational Hazards for Restaurant Workers in San Francisco

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Young Workers United: Occupational Hazards for Restaurant Workers in San Francisco
Young Workers United: Occupational Hazards
for Restaurant Workers in San Francisco
              By Alfonso Taylor, B.A. and Angela Pullen, M.P.H

         Occupational Health and Safety in Restaurants remains an overlooked subject. We aimed
to assess health and safety in the restaurant industry by surveying restaurant workers for a
restaurant guide that rates restaurants based on how well the workers are treated. We collected
55 surveys, 11 of which were from workers in non-guide worthy restaurants. Compared to the
surveys from guide worthy restaurants, a higher percentage of non-guide worthy restaurant
workers reported injury on the job, a lack of health and safety training, and unsafe working
conditions. We concluded that restaurants that comply with labor laws and provide adequate
support to their workers are also more likely to have working conditions that are safer and less
likely to cause worker injury or illness.


       Occupational health and safety in the restaurant has been an understudied subject. When
asked about health in a restaurant setting, many people may first consider the public health
effects of food sanitation before the concept of occupational health crosses their minds.
Nevertheless, restaurant workers are exposed everyday to hazards that jeopardize their
        The restaurant industry accounts for 5% of all reported injuries and illnesses, the
third highest proportion attributable to any one industry (BLS 2008a). According to the
Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2008b), the most common reported injuries are
musculoskeletal sprains and strains; cuts, lacerations, and punctures; and heat burns and
scalds. A recent survey of 500 restaurant workers in New York (ROC‐NY 2005) found the
following common unsafe working conditions: extremely high temperatures in the kitchen,
non‐functioning fire extinguishers, lack of guards on cutting machines, and missing non‐
slip mats. Over half of the workers in the study reported having received no health and
safety training from their employers. Therefore, policies to improve the working conditions in
restaurant are highly needed.

Young Workers United

        Young Workers United, or YWU, is a multiracial, bilingual worker center that organizes
restaurant workers with the intent of improving the quality of their work environment. Through
outreach, education, and litigation, the organization has achieved several successes. For example,
they won a case against The Cheesecake Factory for not fully paying promised wages and for
altering time cards. Furthermore, YWU helped pass local legislation that raised the minimum
wage in the city of San Francisco. They also helped pass local legislation mandating paid sick
leave for hourly workers. Due to this success, San Francisco is currently the only city in the
United States that has passed such a statute.
        In 2010 YWU released Dining With Justice a restaurant guide that rates restaurants based
on how the workers are being treated. This guidebook is intended to reward restaurants that
follow labor laws and treat their workers with respect. Dining With Justice also serves to increase
transparency in the restaurant industry so that San Francisco restaurant patrons can make more
educated choices when they are deciding how and where to spend their money.
        In order to qualify for the restaurant guide, 50% of both the “back of the house” (chefs
and kitchen workers) and the “front of the house” (servers and bussers) need to be interviewed.
The restaurants must comply with both California and San Francisco labor laws, and fulfill
enough criteria two receive at least 3 stars out of a five star scale. This five star scale consist of a
“wage and hour” star, “job mobility” star, “job satisfaction” star, “job security” star, and “health
and safety” star. The scope our project was focused on the “health and safety” star.

        The objective of the summer project was to develop health and safety criteria that will be
used to decide whether or not a restaurant receives a health and safety star in Dining With
Justice. We aimed to develop these criteria by researching relevant Cal/OSHA standards, by
conducting group and individual discussions with YWU restaurant worker members, by
interviewing a sample of employers, and by surveying restaurant workers and analyzing the
We also aimed to interview restaurant employers. We hope that the information from
employers will better our understanding of the relationship between employers and employees in
the restaurant workplace.

        We developed the health and safety section of the survey along with a YWU staff person
who is also a restaurant employee. We developed a better understanding of the unsafe conditions
that may exist at a restaurant worksite by researching Cal/OSHA standards and conducting both
individual and group discussions with YWU members. From our research and discussions we
created new health and safety questions to add to the existing survey.
        We selected restaurants to survey in a variety of ways: 1) We chose some restaurants that
were already in the guide; 2) We selected some restaurants at which current YWU members
currently or previously worked; 3) We identified restaurants using online searches; and 4) We
selected some restaurants at random in various neighborhoods within San Francisco. We
surveyed YWU members in the YWU office. We used, a consumer based
website where consumers can rate restaurants based on the food and service, as our primary
method of choosing restaurants online. From these web-based searches, we were able to identify
several restaurants that would be good candidates to survey for our guide, and we successfully
interviewed over 50% of the staff at one of the restaurants we found on
Regarding the restaurants we selected haphazardly, we chose those that appeared to have a
relatively small number of employees.

         The new, final health and safety section of the survey consisted of 11 questions, 8 of
which were completely new and not asked in the survey from the previous year. Most of the
questions contained several sub-component questions. The total number of questions in the entire
survey amounted to 50.
         We were able to visit 8 restaurant worksites and conduct interviews with an employer,
the employees, or both. 5 of the restaurants were from YWU’s existing guide. We surveyed an
additional 12 restaurants, for a total of 17 restaurants. Out of these 17 dining establishments, 3
were ones that we found on our own, 1 was a restaurant at which a YWU worker had already
commenced the survey process, and 8 restaurants were ones at which YWU members have either
currently or previously worked. We interviewed 7 employers and 55 employees, 10 of which
were employees who worked for restaurants that did not make the guide.
         Our data analysis shows that a higher percentage those who work for restaurants that did
not qualify to be in the guide reported working in unsafe conditions that are more conducive to
injury, and a higher percentage reported having injured themselves on the job (See Chart #1
below). The most frequently reported unsafe conditions by all employees interviewed were
intense heat and lack of health and safety training (see Chart 2 below). Based on our survey
results, people who had received health and safety training were less likely to have been injured
in the past 6 months (see Chart #3.)
         Out of the 17 restaurants that were surveyed over the course of the summer internship, 7
are expected to enter into the Dining With Justice Guide. Only 5 of these restaurants have
fulfilled all of the criteria, and the other two are expected to enter the guide once 50% of the
workers have been surveyed. Furthermore, 2 additional restaurants at which we have only had
employer interviews may make the guide once the workers are surveyed.

                      Chart 1 – non guide restaraunts vs. the entire group

      Common unsafe conditions in the restaurant workplace – Chart 2
Sometimes/always intense heat             35.5%
No Health and Safety Training               34.8%

Emergency exits sometimes/always locked 13.3%
or blocked
 Sometimes or never guards on food slicers 11.1%
Always wet/greasy floors                   4.45%

           Chart 3 – Observed Relationship Between Health and Safety Training and Injury
Employer Interviews:
        We interviewed a total of 7 employers. When we asked employers about the type of
health and safety training that they provided for their workers, 3 out of 7 employers stated that it
is expected that employees should already know about worker health and safety before they start
the job. One employer believed that serious hazards are minimal in his kitchen and that his
restaurant did not have any real dangers. As a result, the type of training that he provided to his
employees was brief. Two employers stated that they only hire individuals who have at least one
year of actual restaurant experience. These employers state that the majority of the needed
restaurant health and safety training would increase as workers experience in the kitchen
increased, as a result they trained their employees more on how to handle food rather than how to
work safely. Out of three employers that provided an extensive health and safety-training
program, only one had a staff member who was responsible for training everyone on how to
remain safe while working. This establishment also was the only one that held monthly meetings
to address any health and safety hazards that staff members have identified.
        When we interviewed employers, we asked if there was a system in place for employees
to report safety problems to management. None of the employers mentioned that they had an
official system in place for workers to report safety issues and only 2 out of 7 of employers
tracked and recorded safety problems reported to them by their employees. 5 out of 7 employers
stated that their employees verbally report any safety issues that they have.
        One practice that was shared amongst all employers was that they all provided their
workers with a first aid kit that had the materials to treat minor cuts and burns. Employers also
stated that all of their employees were instructed to seek medical attention if a serious injury was
to ever occur. 5 employers reported that in the past 12 months they have had an employee get
injured to the point of hospitalization. 2 employers reported that there have not been any severe
injuries in their restaurants in the past 12 months; they have had workers with minor cuts and
burns but nothing that required hospitalization.
        Employers all had a similar strategy for handling peek hours within their restaurants.
They all stated that they have scheduled rushes and as a result they assign more workers during
those hours. We were curious to know what would occur if an employee were to cancel his or
her shift at the last minute. One employer stated that the rest of the workers would have to work
harder to pick up the slack, thus increasing an employee’s chances of incurring a work related
        We also asked employers if they had an IIPP in place. Many of them have not heard of it
nor had an official program established at their restaurant. Only one employer mentioned that she
had a written IIPP. Others had several components of the program but not all of them.
        One commonality that was noted when we interviewed restaurant employers was that
they all believed that some form of injury, specifically cuts and burns, are expected to occur
throughout one’s career as a restaurant chef. When comparing this response to the response from
employees regarding their attitudes about restaurant injuries, workers also felt that some
restaurant injuries are inevitable, particularly minor cuts and burns.

Health and Safety Criteria

       Based on our survey results, we developed the following health and safety criteria.
Restaurants must have all of the following seven dimensions listed in order to receive a health
and safety star.
    Paid Sick Days
           o Paid sick days is part of San Francisco law. Employers are legally obligated to
                provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours of work.
    Health Insurance
           o Health insurance is also a part of San Francisco law. Employers that have 20
                employees or more must set aside a certain amount of money for health insurance
                per hour.
    Health and Safety Training
           o Many employees mentioned that the assumption that a restaurant worker has
                health and safety training before being hired is commonplace. However, health
                and safety training is required under California’s Injury and Illness Prevention
                Program (IIPP) standard. To be in compliance, restaurant employers need to train
                all of their workers, regardless of work experience, before a worker begins their
                employment at a given establishment. As our data showed, workers with health
                and safety training—even if it’s a refresher—are less likely to get injured.
    Safe Conditions
           o Safe conditions, such as non-slip mats, guards on food slicers, and proper
                ventilation are essential to health and safety in the workplace and indicate the
                employer’s commitment to safety.
    Not Getting Hurt Often
o Although it is difficult to avoid all cuts and burns in a kitchen setting, frequent
              injuries indicate a lack of safe working conditions. Survey results had to indicate a
              lack of frequent injuries, rather than no injuries at all.
      Providing Treatment for Injuries (first aid kit and workers compensation, etc…)
          o Survey results had to indicate that treatment for injury was always provided when
              needed. Not providing such medical care is a cal/OSHA violation and
              demonstrates the employer’s disregard for restaurant worker health and wellbeing.
      Being Comfortable Voicing Concerns to Management
          o Under Cal/OSHA’s IIPP standard, every workplace must implement system for
              employees to report health and safety concerns without fear of reprisal. An
              exclusively written system is not sufficient. Employees must feel comfortable
              reporting, and this is a demonstration of how open management is to improve
              workplace conditions.

        Based on these criteria, we expect 3 restaurants to receive a health and safety star. A
fourth restaurant may be added once more workers are surveyed.

Half Star Criteria

        After reviewing the survey responses, we noticed that some restaurants clearly had some
well-established health and safety practices, but they did not meet all of the criteria to receive a
health and safety star. To these restaurants, we have decided to give half of a health and safety
star. Restaurants may receive half of a health and safety star if they lack comfort in voicing
concerns with management, health and safety training, or both. We felt that complying with SF
law, having safe conditions, not getting hurt, and employer provided treatment were absolutely
essential in order for a restaurant to receive at least half of a health and safety star. One of the
restaurants we have interviewed will receive a half health and safety star. Giving out half a star is
our method of distinguishing among those employers who are almost and health and safety star
level and those who have unambiguously poor health and safety conditions.

        The most common reason for a restaurant to not receive a health and safety star, or even
half of a star was failure to comply with the San Francisco paid sick days law. 2 of the guide-
worthy restaurants did not provide paid sick days to their employees.

        One of the biggest challenges of our project was developing the new health and safety
questions and expanding the health and safety section of the survey by 8 new questions. Working
with the YWU staff person who was also a restaurant worker, who held the common belief that
injuring oneself is inevitable, made our task of creating health and safety questions particularly
arduous. She felt it was unfair for us to pose questions such as “do you experience production
pressure to the point of injury?” because she felt that these conditions were ubiquitous in the
restaurant industry. She felt that a restaurant that had unsafe conditions such as these should not
be punished with the denial of a health and safety star.
        Another challenge of the internship was interviewing “back of the house” workers. This
population was particularly difficult to access due to their diminished visibility. We eventually
resorted to simply entering the inaccessible kitchen area and requesting interviews directly from

        The focus on occupational health and safety in our OHIP project has greatly influenced
YWU workers and members. YWU has demonstrated an increased awareness of the Cal/OSHA
standards. They have also developed a better understanding of the importance of health and
safety in the restaurant workplace, and that restaurant workers deserve safe conditions. They
have come to realize the similarities between filing complaints through Cal/OSHA and filing
complaints about other labor law violations with local and state agencies.

Further Recommendations:

              More personnel: YWU is a small organization and does not have enough
               personnel to spend the time that is necessary to interview 50% of the restaurant
               workers in San Francisco who work for responsible employers. For this reason,
               we recommend that YWU hire additional people who can dedicate all their time
               to focusing on the Dining with Justice guide. With the additional help, the
               organization will be able to continue to conduct their organizing worker with San
               Francisco workers, improving the labor laws of San Francisco, and reaching out
               to new people through classroom activities. More personnel will also mean that
               YWU will be able to add restaurants to the guide without sacrificing energy
               needed for these higher priority campaigns.
              Publicize the YWU guide on well known websites: Many people who are
               currently living in San Francisco still do not know about the Dining with Justice
               guide. More needs to be done to increase awareness and influence where people
               choose to spend money. Making arrangements with frequently used consumer
               rated websites like, so that people can see how a given restaurant treats
               its workers, would increase the amount of information to which consumers have
               access online.
              Publicize the restaurants that do not treat their workers well: Since the
               possibility of interviewing every restaurant in the San Francisco is low, people
               would benefit if they also knew which restaurants to avoid. If YWU also
               published, in Dining with Justice, a list of all the restaurants about which they
               have filed a complaint through the labor department, this information would give
               people a sense of which restaurants have been problematic for their workers.

Project Givebacks:

         For our giveback, we have made informational handouts about how and when to file a
Cal/OSHA complaint and about Healthy San Francisco. In the Cal/OSHA handout, we explain
what steps to take to file a complaint with OSHA. In the Healthy San Francisco handout, we
explain how the law works and we inform employers how to sign up to provide health insurance
to their employees.
       This work was supported by the members and workers of Young Workers United,
Diana Bush and Pam Tau Lee at the Labor and Occupational Health Program at UC
Berkeley, the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, and San Francisco
restaurant owners, managers and employees.


1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2008a. Table 4. Number of cases and incidence rate of
nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses for industries with 100,000 or more cases,
2008. Accessed June 21, 2010.

2. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2008b. Table R5. Incidence rates for nonfatal occupational
injuries and illnesses involving days away from work per 10,000 full‐time workers by
industry and selected natures of injury or illness, 2008. Accessed June 14, 2010.

3. ROC‐NY. 2005. Behind the Kitchen Door: Pervasive Inequality in New York City's Thriving
Restaurant Industry. New York: New York City Restaurant Industry Coalition; January.
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