Chefs at every level of the industry face injuries and health problems due to the nature of their work. These issues range from problems caused by the job itself – such as back pain and arthritis – to those caused by the unavoidable lifestyle that comes with being a chef.
All chefs and cooks, whether in a commercial setting or at home, know that working by the hearth comes with a set of risks and calls for working with great care and caution. It’s very important to follow safe work practises and lead a healthy lifestyle, asserts Anuraj Nair, executive Chef, Crowne Plaza Muscat.
“A professional kitchen is an incredibly stress and fast paced environment in which to work with extreme temperatures, sharp tools and careful attention to the details to be looked upon constantly. Excessive working hours, late nights, split shifts, lack of proper sleep could lead to improper diet or meal timings which may cause long term health issues if not taken care at the right stages, he points out.
There are some key physical health issues that are caused by standing up in a kitchen all day, as well as by lifting heavy pots and pans. Naturally, the height of kitchen surfaces is designed to suit all, which means that they are never at the correct height for any individual. Leaning over a work surface while preparing food can strain the ligaments and discs in the lower back, thereby causing severe pain. Ideally, surfaces would be raised to prevent this from happening, but in reality, it is impossible.
Back problems can also be encountered as a result of lifting heavy pots and pans from one surface to another, particularly if they are held at a distance from the body. Since pans are often hot when they are being moved, they cannot be held too close to the body to reduce strain on the back, neck and shoulders.
The stress of working in a kitchen can have adverse effects on health. On the job, chefs are effectively working to a constant stream of tight deadlines while trying to remain safe and organised in a confined and hazardous environment. It is unsurprising; therefore, that many chefs suffer from stress-related health problems, whether they are direct or indirect. Directly, chefs may be prone to high blood pressure as a result of their working environments. Indirectly, chefs can develop health problems based on how they choose to unwind and relax between shifts or at the end of the working day.
Some of the biggest health concerns facing chefs are not directly related to the job but are a result of the lifestyle associated with it. This includes the risk of diabetes and heart disease that is caused by a lack of exercise and negative eating habits. As chefs work during the hours that most people are eating, they often have no organised eating pattern and this can encourage them to eat convenience food at odd times of the day and night.
In addition to an unhealthy diet, chefs often do not have time for exercise – they often have only one day off a week and it can be difficult to squeeze a jog in between shifts. This leaves the morning as the only time for exercise, but given that they work late into the night, getting up to exercise can mean missing out on vital sleep.
Chefs who cannot find time to exercise after work hours, can try these quick exercises while at work to keep one’s back, shoulders and limbs in order:
Mini press ups
Starting on your heels, put your weight onto the heels of your feet and then lift your toes into the air. This will help stretch all the muscles in your feet. After you’ve completed about 10-20 reps, do the same with your heel. Place your weight onto the balls of your feet, then lift your body up. This small exercise can also help tone your calves and benefit circulation.
Move your hips
Using your hips like weighing scales, sway from side to side. It’s a light and relaxing exercise, don’t strain yourself, just keep a steady motion and just pull the muscles in your hips slightly to give a small stretch. After you’ve had enough (twenty reps should be plenty), move your hips in a circular motion – first, counter-clockwise and then clockwise.
Keep moving feet
Wiggle your toes, flex your feet, stretch your ankles and bend your knees. When you are working, it can be easy to forget to keep yourself moving. Simple exercises like this can help with circulation and avoid aching pains at the end of the day.
Shrug your shoulders
This is great for keeping your shoulders loose and removing tension in your back. Raise your shoulders up towards your ears, like an exaggerated version of a ‘I don’t mind’ shrug and then release. Each time you raise your shoulders, wiggle and stretch your shoulder blades for extra relief.
The squat movement is one of the most popular exercises to do because it has good benefits. Squats make the muscles in your legs, thighs and buttocks work hard. Standing still can cause aches up along your legs and the lower end of your spine, this workout stretches all the muscles, increases heart rate and helps tone muscles.
What chefs have to say
Zahir Fadil al Hajri
Commis 2, Sheraton Oman
The kitchen can be a very hazardous place as we work with sharp knives and other equipment – so getting cuts is common. Also, floors are often slippery from grease or moisture and it can cause a chef to slip and fall.
Nader al Aisari
Former chef, Tanzanite
Stress is one common problem that all chefs face as we have to work within tight schedules and long hours. We also get to sleep less and have too much coffee to handle our stress. I do meditation, praying, swimming, etc to relax.
Executive Chef, Crowne Plaza Muscat
It’s very much a physically demanding job – the issues range from excessive standing, working in awkward positions or performing repetitive manual tasks that may cause musculoskeletal discomforts.