It is a well documented issue in the catering and hospitality industry that chef’s and kitchen staff have to withstand very high temperatures on a daily basis as part of their working life. Whilst the gradual modernisation of hotel kitchens over the last fifty years in line with health and safety guidelines has improved the conditions of many kitchens, bringing the facilities of often historic buildings up to date, there still exists a health risk from soaring kitchen temperatures, particularly as we move into the spring and summer months.
The Role of the TUC
The TUC notes that health risks relating to working in high temperatures include heat exhaustion, dehydration, and that staff ought to make their employers aware of any existing conditions such as heart disease and pregnancy, which can be complicated by high temperatures.
Back in 2003 in the UK there was a serious call from the TUC, backed by many staff and kitchen workers, to place restrictions on the maximum temperature for kitchens. As this piece in The Caterer at the time highlights, this had followed high temperatures reports in a number of kitchens. The kitchen at Coulsdon Manor in Croydon, Surrey saw temperatures rise to 44C, due to broken air conditioning. Workers reported heatstroke instances during this period. Likewise in Sopwell House Hotel in Hertfordshire, a broken air conditioning system led to temperatures of 55C, again several had reported to have suffered from heatstroke, a common side effect of high working temperatures, along with dehydration.
Elsewhere in the article from the time, Bridgewood Manor in Kent had taken an innovative approach to tackling the temperature. Starting two hours earlier to avoid work during the hottest part of the day. This isn’t, however, an option for every kitchen or hotel. Whilst some hotels might not necessarily have the same lunchtime volume as city centre restaurants, it still isn’t an option not to have staff working in the kitchen responding to lunch orders for most restaurant and hotel kitchens in the trade. Good preparation can take some of the strain out of preparing orders, but hands need to be on deck to respond to orders and individual requests from visitors.
The temperature in kitchens during this period might be somewhat alleviated by a potential shift in preference towards cold meals and salads from customers during summer months at the lunch sittings, this doesn’t entirely remove the need for high temperature cooking, which is what causes the baking heat in the kitchen. Hygiene requirements mean that food needs to be cooked to a temperature of 70C in the centre of the item for at least 3 minutes. Often the temperatures are higher and when several cooking processes are going on simultaneously the heat generated starts to accumulate. This information from hse.gov covers what the law says about workplace temperatures.
The Complications of Imposing Maximum Temperatures
Placing maximum temperatures on kitchens also creates potential issues for restaurant and hotel owners. In some of the instances above, the rise in temperatures had resulted from failings in air conditioning systems. Owners had attempted to make provisions for the heat, which had fallen through. Whilst repairing system to help to control temperatures ought to be a priority, placing a legal requirement on temperatures in hotel kitchens in these instances could lead to kitchen closures, if only for short periods, along with significant loss of revenue for many businesses. Perhaps it is with this consideration in mind that no maximum temperatures have been implemented fourteen years on.
It is worth noting as well that the instances highlighted occurred during 2003, which saw an uncharacteristic heatwave across much of Europe, and that similar instances of long term heat waves haven’t occurred to the same extent since. Employers are however required to provide the necessary training as well as drinks and break facilities to allow reprieve form high temperatures. Whilst no maximum temperature has been introduced, another record summer of scorching heat and high kitchen temperatures could re-open the discussion and place the scrutiny of the industry back on the conditions of those working in hotel kitchens.