Protecting Your Baristas

How-to Handbook

There are obvious café hazards: wet floors, scalding water, and heavy lifting. Then there are the more subtle risks of barista life, hidden perils that crop up over time, through the repetitive tasks that expert espresso demands.

Tamping, steaming, and removing portafilters—the basic functions of a barista—are not innocuous routines. Repeated stress of the muscle groups used during such tasks can lead to injuries, chronic pain, and even permanent damage. Though harder to spot than steam wand burns, the aches that come from overstressed muscles are just as important to mitigate and plan for when it comes to the health and wellness of your staff. Mindful ergonomics are crucial to the success of your café.

Educating yourself first is key. For as long as baristas have made coffee, wrist, neck, shoulder, and back strain have been occupational hazards, but the prevalence of those injuries has only begun to be cataloged. In 2014, a study conducted at Wilfred Laurier University and published in the journal Ergonomics looked at occupation-related shoulder and lower back pain in baristas, with sixty-eight and seventy-three percent respectively reporting pain in those areas. Half of baristas surveyed attributed that pain to their jobs. A series of surveys conducted by Sprudge last year as part of an exposé on ergonomics and barista health drew similar conclusions. Those two reports are a great place to start when planning your own café’s safety.

The maturation of barista culture has brought café ergonomics into the spotlight, making it increasingly important to retailers and equipment manufacturers.

The primary concern is that the force required to do things like tamp espresso registers above what is safe for a repetitive task; and that force repeated hundreds of times a day can really wear on the body. “Lot’s of people know that tamping is very stressful,” says Ben Put, two-time Canadian Barista Champion and third-place runner up at the 2015 World Barista Championship. “The job of a barista, in general, is a very physically demanding job.”

Best-case scenario: overworked muscles require physical therapy or massage. Worst case: there is lasting damage, and probably a career shift (at least out from behind the bar). “I worked with a barista a couple of years ago and he could barely take portafilters out of the machine, he had messed himself up so badly,” says Put, who used an ergonomic tamper in his WBC performance earlier this year.

In recent years, the prevalence of stories like these and the maturation of barista culture has brought café ergonomics into the spotlight, making it increasingly important to retailers and equipment manufacturers. The good news is, that means resources and best practices are growing every year.

(Photos: Cory Eldridge.)

The first line of defense in protecting your baristas comes with your café’s build-out. Streamlining tools and stations behind the bar to minimize bending and reaching pays off in the long term, and leaves more time for customer service. Bring in an ergonomics consultant if building a bar from scratch. Consider the differences between a cramped bar and a roomier one, where baristas aren’t twisting to get around each other. Think about where baristas will stand: is there a hot appliance, like a dish sanitizer, nearby? Is the counter height right?

How you outfit your bar is also important. Doserless grinders sidestep the incremental dosing of shots, which can be hard on the wrist. Anti-fatigue floor mats provide traction in wet areas and support for hours of standing. Fridge shelves on level with the bar, instead of under the counter, eliminate the need to bend over for each drink.

Jeremy Tooker, who co-founded Ritual Coffee Roasters and later launched Four Barrel Coffee, realized early on he didn’t fit into standard bar dimensions. At five-foot-five, most countertops were too high, so at the outset of Ritual he lowered the espresso machines, opening up barista-and-customer interaction. But it was too much bending over for the tall folks. At Four Barrel’s flagship café, custom, hand-crank tables lower and raise two La Marzocco Mistrals, so each barista can find their ergonomic fit. Café manager Grant McHamer says it makes all the difference. “That, paired with the wooden duck mats we use, makes for a pretty comfortable bar shift and a lot less wear and tear on our baristas,” he says.

“Most of the movements in coffee are actually highly unnatural.”

Creative applications can also be found in barista tools. Nuova Simonelli’s Aurelia II is the first espresso machine to be certified as ergonomic, built with cooperation from the European Institute of Psychology and Ergonomy. It boasts an ergonomic push-pull steaming system, cool touch steam wands, smooth locking portafilters, and more.

As the action with the most impact, tamping often gets tied to barista safety, and the number of ergonomic tampers is growing. Put’s brother Tim, a barista and woodworker, designed the tamper that Put used at the 2015 World Barista Championship. It drew the eye and questions with its interesting shape, which mimics the handle of a saw, but its function was two-pronged: accuracy and healthy wrist motion.

“Most of the movements in coffee are actually highly unnatural,” says Put. “The new handle design takes some of that strain off of the wrist. You can tamp level in a more natural fashion.” (Without twisting the wrist and arm.) Put and his fellow co-founders at Monogram Coffee, a two-location roaster-retailer in Calgary, are hoping to bring Tim’s tamper into each of its cafés. In the meantime the shops focus on ergonomic education, which Put and Dr. Diane Gregory, one of the authors of the Wilfred Laurier University study, agree is a key preventative measure.

“Similar to music, there are some things you just have to do. You will have repetitive tasks, and if you train to make sure that technique is there, in some ways it’s all you can do.”

“By teaching baristas the types of postures and tasks that increase their risk of pain and injury to their low back, as well as how to effectively utilize concepts like job rotation, education can be extremely successful at reducing not only work-place injuries, but low-back pain in general,” says Gregory in an e-mail.

“Technique can protect you,” says Put, who is also a musician. “Similar to music, there are some things you just have to do. You will have repetitive tasks, and if you train to make sure that technique is there, in some ways it’s all you can do.”

Making sure baristas use the safest posture and the right amount of force when tamping, for example, can be huge in preventing injury later on. Encouraging baristas to watch for strain, and pay attention to what works is also important. And lastly, making sure shifts revolve between different tasks (the job rotation Gregory refers to) ensures that one part of the body doesn’t get overworked.

So put your baristas on the register halfway through their shift. Get mats down behind the bar, and be a taskmaster about breaks and lunches. Switch staff to stocking and cleaning, and get on the machine yourself. Set an example with expert form, and if something doesn’t feel right, fix it. You might not be able to prevent grumpy customers or chaotic summer rushes, but you do have the power to protect your baristas. Use it.

Regan Crisp is Fresh Cup’s associate editor. This article appears in our August How-to Handbook, a café ownership guide.