January 1, 2011 |

2011 January: Slip and Fall

By Pamela Mills-Senn

You have to admire those hardy restaurant owners who do business in severe-weather climates — they’re kind of like the post office, nothing gets in the way of providing pizza to their hungry customers. To their brethren operating in more temperate climates, this unperturbed “it’s just business as usual” attitude in the face of below 40 degree weather and four-foot-high snow drifts is nothing short of astonishing. Still, winter weather and all it throws at these operators does bring with it added safety concerns for both customers and employees — as you can imagine, the potential for slips and falls multiplies astronomically during these times of the year.

Restaurants operating in these areas of the country generally do understand severe-weather safety hazards, says Dan Hartwig, president of General Health & Safety Services Corp., a Punta Gorda, Florida-based consulting firm. However, he adds, the question becomes whether or not they pay sufficient attention.

“Employees are told to go out ‘when they have the chance’ and clear the sidewalks or the parking lot,” he says. “Or, they’ll contract this responsibility to an outside company and just wash their hands of it.”

Both approaches leave restaurants vulnerable, says Hartwig. He’s testified as an expert witness in numerous cases where customers were injured in a slip-and-fall and were successfully able to obtain a claim from the restaurant owners even when they had hired others to do the maintenance.

“Restaurant owners still have a great deal of responsibility to maintain and monitor the areas, even if contracted out,” he says.

Steve Schlegel, owner of Audrey’s Pizza Oven in Bozeman, Montana, leaves nothing to chance. Although they have a “snowplow guy” that maintains the parking lot, he and his employees handle the sidewalks. When the weather is severe, they’ll shovel and sand all day, and will sometimes do the lot as well. Schlegel has equipped his restaurant with eight shovels, a mini-snowplow, a big snow blower and a generator. Although the generator isn’t strong enough to completely power up the restaurant, it’s enough to keep the utilities on and the place warm (their equipment is gas, so when the electricity does go out, they light candles and keep on cooking).

A big generator — as well as gas ovens/grills, candles and flashlights — keeps his restaurant up and running when storms hit and the power dies, says Michael Orr, president of Portland House of Pizza, Inc., in Portland, Maine. This area sees about 12 or more storms a year, says Orr.

“I can’t remember when we’ve shut down for a full day, even when we’ve had huge ice storms,” says Orr, adding that they will close early or open late based on weather conditions in order to keep customers and employees safe.

“In fact,” he continues, “some huge storms have resulted in us being packed with customers who were without electricity. People find their way to us because they need to eat.”

Orr uses a company to maintain the parking lot and sidewalk — during a big storm, they come by every hour if necessary. He or his employees will also do some sanding/salting of the sidewalks when needed.

Hartwig says restaurant operators must also pay attention to areas inside the restaurant where folks congregate and drip, like buffets, bathrooms, and foyers.

“Again, what’s often done, especially in the bathrooms, is that owners will have employees check ‘when they have a chance’,” he says. “But unless you specifically assign this to someone and have a set monitoring schedule, it gets neglected.”

Ron Stephan, majority owner of Ricetta’s Brick Oven Pizzeria, (with locations in South Portland and Falmouth, Maine), says his restaurants have buffets, located away from the entrances. By the time customers get to that area most of the dripping is done.

Even so, when winter hits — and they get around 60 inches of snowfall annually, he says — they bring in double or triple the number of floor mats, placing these throughout the restaurant and at the entrance to catch walk-off. These must be vacuumed several times a shift. (Airlocks/double doors at the entrance also help to confine drips as well as fall leaves, another slip hazard, says Stephan.) Schlegel and Orr rely on additional mats/carpeting also, along with plenty of mopping.

Stephan assigns kitchen personnel to shovel, sand/salt the sidewalks, and to vacuum the mats. Both buildings are leased, so the landlord controls the snow removal. However, he’ll maintain the sidewalks. Shoveling is done by hand, but Stephan will sometimes bring in his own snow blower.

Like Schlegel and Orr, Stephan doesn’t require electricity for cooking: he has wood-fired ovens. But he lacks a generator (he hopes to get one soon), so if they lose electricity and therefore their hot water, they have to shut down their dine-in (although they can still manage takeout and delivery).

In spite of the additional challenges, bad weather is a boon for his business, says Stephan.

“When people don’t have power for their residences, they come here,” he says. “We had a huge rainstorm overnight with 50 mile per hour winds and over 60,000 people in the state were without power.”

You could almost hear his cash register ringing.

Pamela Mills Senn a freelancer specializing in writing on topics of interest to all manner of businesses. She is based in Long Beach, California.


Keeping it Safer

Safety consultant Dan Hartwig provides the following additional tips for restaurant operators facing severe-weather challenges:

Make sure the company you’ve hired to provide snow-removal services is contracted and bonded.

Determine what will trigger them to come and remove the snow or ice. “Sometimes they won’t come until X-number of inches of snow/ice is present, but you can have a slip-and-fall with just a half-inch of ice,” he says.

Adequately train employees on snow removal —don’t just hand them a shovel or a bucket of sand and send them out. Training is particularly important when operating snow blowers or mini-plows. Communicate what constitutes adequate results.

Give employees enough time to do the job properly; don’t rush them.

Treat bad-weather maintenance like the critical component it is, rather than as an afterthought. Assign specific employees to the task. Set a schedule. And then supervise.