Kitchen Ergonomics: ‘Tis the Season. . . for Gifts from the Kitchen

By Ellen S. Gibson

woman and girl making a pieConsider how you use your body when you cook. Kneading bread or rolling out pie dough engages the hands, the arms, and the shoulders. Sustained chopping, of herbs for example, holds your predominant arm in a tense position. Stirring a big pot of soup uses the muscles and joints that give your shoulders their range of motion. Lifting a roast from the oven, a pot of boiling water from the stove, or a sack of potatoes from the cupboard can put a lot of stress on your back.

Kitchen ergonomics is design with the functional goal to limit bending, kneeling, lifting, and reaching. With a little thought to how things are organized in your kitchen and how you go about your work, you can increase your efficiency, reduce the stress on your body, and make the cooking process more inviting for everyone in the family.

I really began to appreciate the impact of ergonomics when Rob Stuthridge was the Project Ergonomist for the National AgrAbility Project. He worked for AgrAbility in the mid 2000s while he pursued his PhD in ergonomics. He loved this field—you might say he looked at the world through ergonomic glasses—and he could relate anything to work, body mechanics, and the environment. Rob loved to cook, and he had several years of experience working in a commercial kitchen.

He advised me with many of the recommendations below when I was working with a client who baked commercially. They have been corroborated and added to by the Occupational Therapists on the Maine AgrAbility staff.

General posture

It is important to reduce stooping and reaching postures, particularly when handling heavy objects.  People are at risk whether cooking commercially or at home. Draw objects close to the body before lifting them.

  • Use front burners in preference to rear burners.
  • Select the smallest and lightest pan for the task—don’t use a large, heavy pan when a smaller pan will suffice.
  • Is the working height of your counters correct for your height?
    • To raise the working height of a counter, turn a roasting pan upside down on the preparation surface and use that for chopping, dicing, etc.
    • A sit/stand stool works well for tasks that require standing in one spot for long periods. Work can be done at standing height, but the stool takes some weight off the feet and legs. A simple high stool can also help, as long as its height allows working without stooping.
  • Have you ever struggled to keep a cookbook open to the page you need? Book stands, available from places like Amazon, hold pages open and improve reading posture.

Lifting and bending

  • Using a wheeled cart for moving heavy items from one area to another will reduce manual handling. This works well in a commercial kitchen, but may not be possible in a small kitchen.
    • Draining of liquids can be a problem for people with musculoskeletal problems. Removing some of the contents at the end of the cooking period, by ladling liquid out of the cooking container before moving it, will significantly reduce the weight compared with carrying a fully-laden pan.
    • Use electric pumps and hoses. These are available for commercial kitchen use (think cheese making) and allow liquids to be sucked from a container and transferred to the waste disposal/drain, or to another container.
    • Cook items in a wire basket or remove produce from the cooking water using a slotted spoon.
  • Bending low or reaching overhead are risk factors for back pain. Organize your cupboards to keep items that are heavier and frequently used within the most comfortable zone of reach—no lower than the knees and no higher than the chest.

Reducing fatigue

  • Floor mats that reduce leg fatigue are available. Mats must be waterproof and non-slip and their edges tapered to reduce the chances of tripping. For proper sanitation they cannot harbor food particles.
  • Good supportive shoes also support the back. Arch supports to insert inside the shoe are available from drug stores, sporting goods stores, or shoe stores. Also, changing to a different pair of shoes at some point in the day is very refreshing for your legs and feet.
  • Adequate lighting will reduce eye fatigue and significantly improve working conditions.
  • Take frequent rest breaks. Sitting for a minute or two in front of a fan and drinking a glass of water will make the next 15 minutes of standing much easier.
  • Vary your tasks—for example, going from sitting to standing—every 20-30 minutes.

Avoid overheating

Overheating isn’t usually a problem for a home kitchen during the winter. Summer is another story. And commercial enterprises can get hot and steamy on the coldest of days. The rule of thumb is to cool the environment first, and then the worker.

  • You may be able to improve the efficiency of the stove’s extraction hood or fit a high efficiency extraction fan through a wall or window. Oscillating fans will increase air movement, too.
  • Fill a hand-pumped sprayer with water and give your face an occasional spritz.
  • Drinking water will help you keep cool via sweating.
  • Wearing loose, lightweight clothing can make a significant difference to thermal equilibrium in kitchen workers.

Enjoy the time spent in your kitchen. Invite your kids to help by setting up work areas at different heights so that everyone can work comfortably. Cook up a beefy stew, frost some gingerbread cookies, and string popcorn garlands for the tree. And ring in the New Year sitting together around the kitchen table.