The Significance of Ergonomics for a Barista
Working as a barista means being a true crafts(wo)man! What if the daily routines turn the passion into pain preventing the barista from working and maybe even changing the career?
“Just serving coffee, right?”
Creating and serving beautiful and tasty coffee drinks to your customers really requires skills. Furthermore, it means loads of repetitiveness, cumulative loading and extreme positions for the joints, muscles and other tissues. It is all about making small, well deliberated movements but also using force – and at the end of the day, creating a nice balance between these by working very efficiently but not building up a rush.
As in every job, it is essential to keep yourself in reasonable condition and also use your body as a tool but in a correct way. Core training for baristas is not just a funny thought, you really need to have your package together to be able to use your body correctly. And yeah, the mind should be minded, too!
On the other hand, the working environment is often far from the ideal. Counter heights that are low for tall baristas and high for short ones, narrow spaces around each corner, loads of stuff here and there, hot water and steam, lack of light, continuous draft of air, lifting and carrying weirdly shaped loads are well known everyday challenges at workplaces.
The rush and hustle are not to be forgotten either. They actually seem to be the most common reasons for the baristas to be stressed at work. In addition to the regular customer service, which can sometimes be stressing, there are lots of things that are causing mental burden. Not having time for break and eating, sick leave challenges, product deliveries coming in in the middle of the rush…And not to mention the meaning of the working community! All these are causing mental stress which has its effect on the ergonomics.
Ergonomics covers all those views - physical but also mental and social.
A word with a barista slash physiotherapist
Maria Nemlander has been working as a barista for several years. After graduating in 2016 as a physiotherapist she is now giving guidance, treatment and care for her customers (including also baristas!) at her job in Idealfit, Helsinki. She even wrote her thesis about barista ergonomics. That is quite rare – there are hardly any studies made about this subject. Maria says it all begins with your core and bum. First of all, remember they are existing! Keep them active throughout the shift and keep your standing position correct.
Maria also reminds us about the importance of using your body as an entity, not just straining certain parts over and over again. You should always use both hands if possible, for example when preparing aeropress coffee.
Also, remember to use your “weaker” hand whenever possible to give the working hand a rest, for example when emptying the portafiler. Furthermore, the importance of the breaks during the shift cannot be shouted out too loud. Making countermoves and returning movements during the shift also is a good way to relieve the muscles. Training your feet and hand muscles really pays off especially when working as a barista, too.
The most common physics-related health issues among baristas
Wilfred Laurier University studied the occupation-related shoulder and lower back pain among baristas.
Based on the study, 68% of the baristas report shoulder pain and 73% report lower back pain. Half of the baristas reporting having pain attributed it to their occupation. At least the same percentage of the baristas reported having espresso preparation related pain in neck, upper back, wrist, elbow and knee.
During the study, it was also found out that continuous “high shoulder moments” took place among baristas. That is when force is being applied to a joint at a long distance from that joint. The force may then damage the joint or other tissues.
Lower back pain
As in all work that is done by standing on your feet all day long, by having a good standing position you can avoid back problems. Check your standing habits:
- Core muscles and bum - are in the key position, is your package tight enough?
- Are you standing swaybacked? Is your lower back pushed back rather than kept in the middle? If your bum is sleeping, the back will slip into a wrong position!
- What about your posture? Are the shoulders tightly up or front when they should be down and loose?
- Are your knees locked back when they should be bent just a bit forward?
Do you remember to keep breaks, and use the time not to sprawl on an uncomfortable stool checking your phone in an absurd position? After some 3 hours of standing it is a good idea to sit down and lean back for a 5-10 minutes. In addition to sitting down in a good position, it is a great way to loosen the tightness and to activate those muscles you are not regularly using by hopping up and down a couple of times.
Wrist, elbow and shoulder issues:
Tamping the coffee is something baristas do dozens of times during a shift. This is one of the most common tasks to cause pain if the technique or the tools are not correct. What is there to be taken into consideration?
- the height of the counter and the espresso machine
- the standing position and direction towards the counter – the barista should stand in 90 degrees angle in relation to the counter, i.e. the side facing the counter
- the shoulders should be relaxed, not lifted or tensed
- the shoulder, the elbow and the wrist should be in same line, none of them being tilted
- the tamping force should come from abdominal muscles and remembering keeping the bum tight
- never use “only” your hand when tamping, use the whole body – your midriff has much more leverage than just the hand itself
- the tamper itself can make a real difference, as we can see when checking out a wisely designed handmade tamper by Tim Put, a barista and the brother of Ben Put, who came in 3rd in the World Barista Championships in 2015 and 2016
When removing and attaching the portafilter, it is common to heighten the shoulder but we should rather keep the blade of shoulder to ensure the correct position.
Actually the “high shoulder moments” occur quite often among baristas. This is something to avoid in general – don’t strain your shoulder when you should be using the whole body!
When knocking the puck off the portafilter, the muscles of shoulder blade and back should be doing the work – not just a loose hand.
When unpacking the goods deliveries and lifting heavy loads in general: always lift with your feet, never with your back!
Also hand brewing is something to be noticed. Aeropress pressing is often done from the side. The press however should be done rather from straight above downwards using both hands equally and the pectoral and abdominal muscles, too.
And when using Hario V60 type of equipment, it is noteworthy not to lift the shoulder up when pouring water into the filter. Exercise the muscles of the hand so they can do the work!
Also, when reaching out for something, don’t do that by stretching your back but simply lifting your hand.
Of course rotation of the tasks in general is in an important role, too. Starting for example from the bar, then moving to the kitchen and finally by the cash register provides more variable movements and changes in the loading on muscles and other tissue.
Remember to give yourself time to do things one at a time. Do not run and rush. Be effective but don’t take that too far. Get a break every now and then, and breathe!
The point of work – bar area
Usually the employees are not invited to design the working areas. The coffee shops and espresso bars are often very small and designed to be nice looking rather than good for working. There are some checkpoints that should be taken into consideration when thinking of the wellbeing of the baristas:
- adjustable height of the coffee machine and/or the counter and/or the tamping station
- enough space for the equipment
- placing the stuff smartly – no need for reaching out, tumbling into things and going back and forth all the time
- lightning should be good
- noise is a considerable issue, too
- in case liquids on the floor the surfaces should be easy to wipe and dry to avoid slipping
- draft of air can be a problem, even if it is not too cold in the coffee shop
- break spaces are often poor or missing totally
What if the pain does not go away?
Repeated stress and strain can quickly cumulate into tissue injuries, chronic pain and even permanent damage. One large problem seems to be compensating for the pain with awkward postures or application of force that actually cause wrong working positions and more pain in the long term.
There are several diagnoses that are related to work of barista, for example:
- tennis elbow
- shoulder pain
- wrist canal syndrome
- tension neck
- plica syndrome in elbow
- knee pain
- back pain
Usually medication does not help in this cases. The body can be balanced by physiotherapy. This is a good way to holistically work with the problem but requires some time to show its magic. Also massage can do some good, but that is only to relieve the pain, not to fix any problems or to do any precautional work for the body balance.
Exercising and stretching is a really good way to prevent the problems before they start to exist. Work actively for your own good and think of ways to improve the working conditions!
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