Broken Back Barista
Updated: Jul 20, 2018
Despite 18 years as a Chartered Physiotherapist educating patients about how to look after themselves physically, this doesn’t mean I am immune to injury myself. During a very busy coffee event in Birmingham last month, while holding a heavy water bottle in a crouched position, I felt a sharp pain in my lower back which developed into full blown back pain over the next few days.
Would I tell my patients to lift a heavy water bottle in an awkward position? Could I have done anything differently to avoid straining my back? My back is now on the mend and I should make a full recovery, but I will definitely think twice about how I lift that heavy water bottle again in the future.
The injury has made me think about some of the common problems that affect a barista’s physical health so I thought I’d write about it. There was a great series of articles written a few years ago by Alex Bernson of Sprudge, named Barista Health in the Workplace, which included discussion about injury types in baristas, as well as general wellbeing issues. I’m going to expand a little on what was written by Alex and use my experience as a physiotherapist to offer some simple advice - apologies in advance if it gets a bit dry in places!
Neck pain and associated headaches can be the result of sustained periods of poor posture combined with stress and tension. This is commonly seen when looking down at a milk pitcher for long periods of time whilst steaming milk. Ways to improve neck posture and reduce strain when steaming milk include:
• Bringing the steam wand higher by raising the espresso machine height.
• Standing with your back straight, the back of your neck lengthened and your chin tucked in (imagine you are gently holding an apple under your chin).
• Using your sense of feel to steam milk to reduce the time you spend looking down at the milk pitcher.
• Changing tasks regularly throughout the day with your fellow baristas, rather than staying on one task for a full shift.
Shoulder pain is also generally avoidable. Again, it can be caused by prolonged postures associated with steaming milk, particularly if the shoulders are too hunched forwards. This position can lead to muscle tension, shoulder joint irritation and fatigue. As well as considering the ergonomics of the bar, as previously mentioned, the following may be useful to try to help avoid shoulder issues:
• Learning to hold your shoulders back using the muscles of your upper back and shoulder blades will help reduce the strain on your shoulders.
• Making sure you stand close to the steam wand will mean you don’t have to reach forward as far when steaming milk.
• Using an automated steaming system rather than a manual steam wand could be an option if you are really struggling. This obviously takes away a lot of the craft and some of the theatre of making coffee but in some cases may be a necessary compromise.
Probably the area of coffee preparation that has been documented as causing the most issues is tamping. Persistent wrist, elbow and sometimes shoulder pain can result from tamping. There are lots of aspects to tamping that can be modified to reduce the chance of injury, these include:
• Avoiding tamping too hard (this usually makes the coffee taste bad anyway).
• Using a heavy tamper that doesn’t require as much downward pressure when tamping.
• Ensuring the bar height is suitable (this is tricky unless all the baristas you work with are the same height!).
• Keeping your wrist in a ‘neutral’ position so it isn’t deviated to one side, or twisted when you tamp.
• Making sure you angle your body enough to avoid twisting your torso whilst you tamp – this may mean standing with one foot in front of the other rather than side by side.
• Again, there are automated tamping options out there which takes out some of the human aspect of coffee preparation - these may be a useful option if you are really struggling.
Moving away from specific tasks of coffee preparation and looking more at simply being stood for long periods of the day, often in fairly limited spaces, the two areas of the body most commonly affected are the lower back and feet. Lower back pain is usually muscular in origin and rarely serious, whilst pain in the soles of the feet is common, particularly the heel. Issues caused by prolonged standing can be due to the wrong footwear, incorrect coffee bar height, muscle imbalance of the legs and torso, and poor posture. To help prevent pain associated with long shifts stood at the bar try the following:
• Take time to choose the right shoes for your feet. Some people have flexible, flat feet that need shoes that are stiffer with good arch support. Others have stiff, high arched feet that benefit from slightly softer shoes that are well cushioned.
• Keep your leg muscles flexible with regular stretches, particularly your thighs and hamstrings. Good calf flexibility is also important to prevent most foot problems.
• Stand with a good spinal posture – avoid letting your lower back arch inwards too much by gently keeping your lower tummy muscles tucked in (without holding your breath).
• Place a rubber mat on the floor in the area you are working to soften the surface you are standing on.
• Raise the bar height, or simply the equipment on the bar to prevent having to stoop or over-reach during service.
• Regularly change your position, for example switch between a normal standing position and standing with one foot in front of the other. Also, try and sit down during quiet times and do some simple back and leg stretches.
It’s pretty hard to work as a barista and not have to lift heavy items during a shift. Whether it’s a delivery of milk or a box of beans, it’s easy to get it wrong and pull something, often your back. Every workplace should have clear manual handling guidelines, but here are a few top tips:
• Do not try and lift something you think is too heavy – use your common sense. Get someone else to help you or wait until someone becomes available.
• Make sure the item you are lifting is in front of you rather than to one side. This stops you twisting your back when lifting.
• Bend your knees, lean forward at the hips and keep your back straight when lifting (imagine you are sitting down on the toilet as you squat to lift).
• Keep the load you are lifting close to your body.
• You may not be a gym bunny who loves to squat, however if you are in a job that involves lifting tasks it makes sense to condition yourself. Strengthening your legs through squatting, lunges and dead lifts, as well as simple core exercises or a regular pilates class will make you more robust for the job!
Dehydration, stress, high levels of caffeine and poor dietary habits can also affect your physical health. These factors may make you more susceptible to injury and can increase the sensitivity of your nervous system – this in turn potentially amplifies your pain levels. Stay well hydrated, take a break when you can, try meditation, eat well and think about whether you really need that next shot of espresso (I know it’s not that simple when you work in coffee!).
If you plan to be a barista for the long haul you need to look after yourself. It’s a great job with lots of opportunities – don’t be the next Broken Back Barista!