Bars can be dangerous places, especially for those of us who work behind them. Cuts, scrapes, burns, slips and falls are all quite common bar injuries, and sometimes bartenders suffer even weirder injuries like bar spoon puncture wounds. I’ve experienced many of these myself and I don’t know anyone in the industry who hasn’t. It’s common for injuries to not be treated correctly or quickly enough and often, bartenders will continue working with an injury even if they probably shouldn’t. All too often, I hear about bartenders taping themselves back together and finishing out a busy shift. My guest this week, Julie Kunz, even tells a story about a time she sustained a concussion and continued working the rest of the night. She didn’t go to the hospital until days later.
Julie has worked at many amazing bars in the Bay Area, including: Cafe du Nord(with Bon Vivants), Hard Water and the Michelin star Nico Restaurant. Julie has suffered many of the most common and uncommon bar injuries and is currently recovering from a foot injury at the time of recording. Because of this, we actually recorded this interview at her home in Oakland, Calif. (apologies in advance for the garbage truck noises in the background). It’s always morbidly fun to hear about gross injuries, and Julie had many great stories to share.
We were joined by registered nurse Andrew Campbell for this episode. Andrew began working in hospitals in 2004 and has recently transitioned to a career in personal training and holistic health coaching. He currently runs a personal training program called &Kettlebell. Andrew had a ton of knowledge to share about how the body works, how to treat injuries, when you should go to the hospital and some great tips on how to avoid fatigue and better take care of ourselves behind the bar.
Listen to my interview with Julie and Andrew in the player below or wherever podcasts are found, and read on after the break for a more in depth look at common bar related injuries and how to treat them.
Some important facts about bar injuries
Injuries are common at bars and restaurants where knives, peelers, ranges and ovens, torches, boiling hot liquids, slippery floors, hard surfaces and broken glass are all just tools of the trade. When you put it that way, a bar sounds more like a house of horrors or a teen slasher movie than a fun place to imbibe. Combine all of those dangers with fast paced, high volume service and alcohol use and you’ve got plenty of accidents waiting to happen. And that’s just the acute injuries—there’s a whole world of repetitive stress injuries, alcohol related conditions and long-term health problems that bartenders suffer from.
It’s hard to say exactly how often bartenders sustain injuries at work, as the research isn’t very specific or conclusive. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that three per every 100 industry employees sustained work related injury or illness, more than one per 100 cases resulted in lost time, transfer or restriction. Those numbers are based on the more than three million strong combined workforce of hospitality workers in any role. Those are only the reported cases though.
Many, many injuries go unreported, and at least from Julie’s and my experience in the industry, there seems to be a culture of sucking it up and dealing with it to finish your shift. Sitting down to fill out an incident report every time you zest the tip of your finger off just doesn’t seem to be common practice, outside of a corporate environment maybe.
Many of us can’t afford to be out of work for an injury. Sick leave is rare in our industry and we can’t just call in sick and stay home, there always has to be someone physically behind the bar. With a growing number of bars and restaurants and a lack of qualified staff coupled with high operational costs and razor thin margins, bars and their employees simply can’t afford to lose time for injuries.
To make matters worse, many of us can’t afford proper medical treatment. The same BLS report stated that the average hourly earnings of a restaurant or bar worker are only $13.38, with an average of only 23.7 hours per week. Quality medical treatment is often out of the question. A 2014 report from the Economic Policy Institute stated that a mere 14.4% of restaurant employees are enrolled in company health plans. So we’re stuck working with an injury that is improperly patched up with whatever we found in the first aid kit that hasn’t been restocked since the bar opened.
At least from Julie’s and my experience in the industry, there seems to be a culture of sucking it up and dealing with it to finish your shift.
Our situation seems pretty dire, but it’s not entirely hopeless. The state of wages and health coverage isn’t going to change over night, though this is a conversation we are having now in our industry. We can, however, take better care of ourselves with just a few simple practices, and although injuries are inevitable, we can learn how to properly treat them when they do occur.
Common bar injuries and how to treat them
Obligatory legal disclaimer: The medical advice in this article comes from my interview with Andrew, who is a registered nurse. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Website. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor, go to the emergency department, or call 911 immediately.
Now that we’ve got that part out of the way, lets dive in!
Cuts, slices, stabs and zest wounds
I don’t believe any conclusive research exists about the frequency of cuts among bartenders, but anecdotally this has got to be the most common injury we sustain in this industry. Julie shared some stories of a couple of nasty cuts she received.
“I had it happen another time with foil that was pretty bad,” Julie said, “I was in the middle of opening a bottle of Champagne in front of these people, so I just held my pinky squeezed behind my back while my hand was getting slowly pooled with blood and I still managed to get their Champagne open and pour it for them.”
There are a few different types of common cuts: Slices with a knife, zest wounds where a piece of skin is removed, stabs where an object punctures the skin, and scrapes could be included in this category as well. They are all treated pretty much the same way.
“The first thing is to just wash it with soap and water,” Andrew said, “There’s no need for doing anything like alcohol or Neosporin, all that stuff is a lot of times counter to the healing process. Especially with alcohol and a cut like that where it’s pretty superficial, if you throw alcohol on it it’s going to burn even worse than the lemon juice.”
Andrew said soap and water is good enough in most situations to remove bacteria. He said to just cover the wound to protect it, unless the bleeding won’t stop. “If it’s bleeding a lot, you want to apply a fair bit of pressure,” Andrew said, “That will help it stop bleeding faster.”
Puncture wounds or stab wounds have some slightly different considerations. “[If] something stabs you, you don’t want to pull that thing out,” Andrew said, “a lot of times pulling it out can cause more damage… the thing that they stabbed you with may actually be preventing you from bleeding. So generally if you have an object stuck inside of you, you actually just put gauze and things around that object to keep it stable and go to the hospital.”
Burning, scalding and chemical burns
There are three levels of burns: First Degree, where the skin is just red(like a sunburn), Second Degree, where a blister forms and Third Degree, where the skin is damaged. First degree burns usually don’t require a trip to the emergency room, second degree burns do if they are severe enough and third degree burns always do.
Julie suffered a pretty nasty second degree burn when she worked at a cafe. “We had a ‘Joe to Go’ which is like three liters of coffee,” Julie said, “of course as soon as this very hot thing was brewed the cap flipped and just spilled all over my foot.”
Burns of any kind should be treated in pretty much the same way. “Generally, if you’re at the bar, you do the same thing for all three of those, which is just put it under cold water,” Andrew said, “That’s the first thing you do and just hold it under there. You want flowing water for many, many minutes.” Andrew also said that you should not use ice water because it’s too cold and restricts blood flow. Just use cool running water from the faucet. You can cover the burn as long as that won’t cause more damage or irritation, and seek medical attention for serious burns.
The only exception to this is certain kinds of chemical burns where the chemical reacts with water. Chemicals containing dry lime(the inorganic mineral, not the citrus fruit), phenols and elemental metals are examples of this, and should be brushed off. Most other chemical burns should be flushed with water, but be sure to check the safety precautions of all the chemicals used in your bar.
Head and brain injuries
The severity of head injuries can range from uncomfortable to life threatening, and they are often difficult to diagnose. Julie has suffered more than one concussion at work, and the first time, when she hit her head on a countertop, she didn’t know to go to the hospital. “I was running around so fast that I didn’t duck low enough and I just whacked my head against it so hard that I went black for a minute and saw stars,” Julie said, “but I still managed to make it to the other side and then stood up, didn’t think much of it because I didn’t know any better.”
Because head injuries are hard to diagnose, it’s a good idea to get checked out. If you are unconscious or are experiencing loss of coordination, any neurological symptoms, or especially a headache that gets progressively worse, you should absolutely go to the hospital.
“The real risk with a head injury is that you have some sort of a bleed in your brain,” Andrew said, “which can cause much worse neurological effects. It can almost cause stroke like symptoms. The best way to tell is, usually you’ll have a headache and that headache will progressively get worse and worse over time. And that would be an indication that you have a bleed.”
Tips for avoiding bar injuries
It’s important to know how to handle injuries properly, and Andrew had some great advice on how to treat them. It is also important to consider the long term effects of our jobs and help prevent medical conditions further down the road.
Our jobs behind the bar are very physical and fatigue and soreness are common. Andrew recommended a few easy tips to stay healthier and feel better after your shift and in the long run.
- Stay Hydrated – Many of us reach for the coffee pot when we’re tired, but Andrew recommends drinking more water too. Coffee actually can make you more dehydrated.
- Good Shoes and Socks – Good, supportive shoes and compression socks will do wonders for your stamina and help you have more energy when your shift is over. Many options are available, so find the ones that work for you. Good shoes can protect you from other injuries too.
- Good Sleep – Andrew recommends limiting screen time before you go to bed to promote more restful sleep.
- Alcohol Effects – Alcohol can cause cuts to bleed longer and your body to heal more slowly when injured. Be mindful of how alcohol affects your body.
- Let Injuries Heal – The body has the amazing ability to heal from injury and sickness if it is allowed to. You’ll have fewer long term problems if you allow yourself to heal properly
Thanks so much for tuning in! It was a pleasure to talk with Julie and Andrew about bar injuries. Be sure to hop on our mailing list to stay up to date with everything happening here, and as always, share us with your friends and colleagues. We have new episodes every week so make sure to subscribe to the podcast so you can catch all of these great conversations with bartenders about all kinds of different topics. We’ll see you next time!