Catering to the Health Needs of Food Service Employees

Andrew Berry

Americans are on an extended streak of eating out and ordering take out. According to a recent U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) report, sales in food service grew from $632 billion in 2012 to $898 billion in 2022 and reached the trillion-dollar mark in late 2023.1

Behind every hot plate and steamy take-out container are a host of employees making sure you get your food on time and prepared correctly. Just under 14 million people were employed in the food service industry in 2022, and the DOL predicts employment for these occupations will increase by about half a million jobs from 2022 to 2032.1 All sectors of the industry are expected to grow, from counter workers at fast food joints to executive chefs at five-star restaurants, with an average rate of 5.3 percent growth of the next 10 years. Job opening for cooks and executive chefs are expected to rise the most.

As with all jobs, food service employees face injury risks at work. Fractures, bruises, thermal (heat) injuries, cuts and lacerations, and sprains, strains, and muscle tears are the most common injuries in the industry. In the most recent year with comparable data, a 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) study found that food service workers face lower overall injury risks when compared to all private sector employees, but the rates of thermal injuries and cuts and lacerations were significantly higher in the food service industry.2 With the help of an occupational health partner, restaurants of all types can both work to prevent injuries and make sure employees get the help they need when injuries occur.

Snapshot of industry injuries

One of the best tools for comparing injuries across industries is to look at the days away from work rate (incident rate). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) calculates this rate by dividing the number of injuries involving days away from work from the total number of hours worked – this can be applied to an employer, an industry, or as in OSHA’s case, the U.S. workforce. This number is multiplied by 200,000, the number of hours worked by 100 employees every year. The incident rate is then stated as the rate divided by 10,00 employees, or XX/10,000.3

In 2019, the last year with comparable data, the incident rate for all private employers was 89.4; for the food service industry, this was 77.9.4 Overall private industry had higher rates of bruises, fractures, and sprains, strains, and muscle tears. The food industry experienced higher rates of cuts and laceration – 17.0 to 9.0 – and much higher rate of thermal injuries and burns – 8.9 to 1.4.4 Special food services, which the BLS categorizes as food service contractors, caterers, and mobile food services, had lower rates or thermal injuries and cuts but higher incidence rates of bruises, fractures, and sprains, strains, and muscle tears.

Preventing food service injuries

Anyone who has worked in the food service industry knows that kitchens and food preparation areas can be hectic, especially during mealtime rush hours. Chefs and cooks face high rates of cuts and lacerations as they work with knives in food prep. They also handle hot pans and work with oil, increasing the likelihood of burns and other thermal injuries.5 Bus staff lift heavy piles of plates and move large food boxes, putting them at risk for sprains, strains, and muscle tears. Waitstaff, food runners, and cooks handle hot plates of food and perform repetitive tasks, raising risks of burns and musculoskeletal disorders like muscle tears. All restaurant staff must navigate busy kitchens and multiple types of flooring; wet floors, obstacles, and spills make slips, trips, and falls likely.

While hot oil will continue to bubble and slick kitchen floors will remain, employers can help their employees avoid some of the most common food service injuries. An occupational health partner should be able to offer injury prevention services that help stop injuries before they occur. To avoid sprains, strains, and muscle tears, physical therapists and certified athletic trainers can come to the workplace and teach employees how to improve their overall and workplace health.6 They can do this through exercise programs and classes on proper warm-up and stretching routines before work, the best lifting techniques, back injury prevention, and ergonomics exercises. Ergonomics experts can also evaluate workplaces for hazards and recommend a variety of ways to improve employee safety. A two-pronged approach – teaching employees how to safely perform tasks while eliminating unnecessary hazards, can be effective.

When injuries do occur

It’s the news that no food service employee wants to hear – someone has been injured. But before you send your chef with a cut finger or server with a twisted ankle to the ER, consider if they could be treated via telemedicine. Many minor injuries can be treated without a time-consuming visit to the hospital and all the headaches that come with it.

Concentra Telemed®, Concentra’s 24/7 telemedicine platform, provides employees with an excellent remote treatment option. Injuries that are treatable using Concentra’s telemedicine platform include:7

  • Minor strains (i.e., pulled muscles)
  • Minor sprains
  • Bruises/contusions
  • Tendonitis/repetitive-use injuries
  • Minor burns
  • Minor cuts and scrapes
  • Work-related rashes
  • Bloodborne pathogen (BBP) exposures

All visits are performed by Concentra clinicians and most employees with injuries that are treatable using Concentra Telemed are fully treated from onset to post-recovery via the platform. Injury recheck visits are available for some wound and laceration checks, second-degree burns and significant sprains, strains, and contusions.7 The platform is easy to use and available 24/7/365 – meaning restaurant and bar workers who work late nights don’t need to worry about access. Concentra Telemed deploys a HIPAA-compliant system of secure communication to ensure privacy and works on any computer, smartphone, or tablet running on up-to-date software.

For injuries not suitable for telemedicine, food service employers should consider their occupational health partner’s approach to injury care and recovery. Concentra uses a specific approach to pain and injury care that improves the quality of injury recovery and helps accelerate return to work. Our FReSH scale, an acronym for Functional Restoration/Status of Healing, reframes the injury recovery experience for the injured employee. Physical therapists determine objective measures that take consider the severity of the injury, the individual, and a functional analysis of the job the individual was performing at the time of injury.8 By focusing on function, not pain, our clinicians are able to gradually reduce restrictions on the employee’s activity status based on the established objective evaluations of progress. Employees treated using the FReSH scale often need fewer opioids during recovery, experience increased productivity and diminished anxiety, and recover more quickly.

Keep the cooks in the kitchen with Concentra

As the food service industry continues its growth spurt, employers can look forward to an expanding industry and more employees. By working with an established, best-in-class occupational health provider like Concentra, food service employers can keep their employees safe and, when injuries happen, make sure they get the excellent care they deserve. Contact a Concentra representative today to see how we can help you reach your health care goals.


  1. Data Spotlight: Growing Food Service Jobs,” by Bill Lawhorn. U.S. Department of Labor, September 23, 2023.
  2. Injury and illness rates higher in special food services than in broader food services industry,” U..S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 30, 2019.
  3. DART Rate Calculator,” Creative Safety Supply, n.d.
  4. Food Services and Drinking Places,” U..S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.d.
  5. Common Injuries in the Food Service Industry,” by Kyle Salyer, Kentucky Courage, November 21, 2023.
  6. Injury Prevention and Wellness,” Concentra, n.d.
  7. Telemedicine for Injured employees,” Concentra, n.d.
  8. A New Alternative to the Pain Scale,” by Michelle Hopkins, Concentra, n.d.