Barflow Ergonomics


Have you ever experienced pain behind the bar? Have you had a work-related injury? Or you know somebody who had?

Personally, I answered "yes" to all questions above.

Whether you pursue a career in coffee or not, health and well-being are essential in physical work.

I have a friend who used to work as a barista in high-volume cafe. In less than a year he messed up his shoulder permanently. This affects him every single day. And I guess it all comes down to improper tamping.

How to improve ergonomics behind the bar?



Weak points

1. Shoulder - predominant joint in coffee-related injuries. Wrong tamping or reaching overhead hundreds of times will ruin your shoulder. If there's an issue with your posture, like winged scapulae, this will escalate quickly.

Quick fix: stretch your chest and strengthen the rotator cuff muscles

2. Lower back - lifting, bending and standing long hours expose your spine to unnatural forces. Sitting in front of a computer after work makes things only worse. Back pain can be paralysing and gets more serious with age. Think about your posture when lifting.

Quick fix: bend knees, not spine, keep weights close to the body, engage abdominal muscles.

3. Knees - standing job affects your entire legs, but the knee is structurally the weakest joint in your body. It's great dealing with vertical forces, but fragile in other dimensions. Overextension, bad shoes, lack of standing mats - the knee takes it all, badly.

Quick fix: get supporting shoes and stretch your legs (from hips to ankles)

The examples above are the most common in bar injuries. They can also put a stop to your career in coffee. Permanently.

Wrist and elbow joints are also exposed, but those are less vulnerable. It's easier to avoid damage. I healed my strained wrists and popping elbows doing a barista job (yet bear in mind those came from extreme downhill racing).

What about a wrist RSI (repetitive strain injury) from tamping you may ask.

Please read below.

Basic rules

1. Proper body mechanics - use anatomical movements especially when force is applied. Picture this: protracting shoulder forward when tamping or circular move when taking a cup from the top of the machine. The shoulder is not designed for circular movements. Unless you take pleasure in popping shoulders with every single coffee you make.

Another frequent mistake is shrugging shoulders to ears when pouring latte art or tamping. Shrugging combined with flexion in elbow puts sheer forces on bicep ligament. Eventually leading to rupture (it will hurt a lot much earlier though).

2. Minimal Range of Movement (ROM) - the shorter distance your arms move the less fatigued they are at the end of the day. Do you need to reach away from your body a lot? Grinder far away from the machine? High take-away cup stacks? Not only does it put more stress on your body, but also slows you down.

3. A minimal number of moves - nobody likes doing a double job. An order of 3 lattes for takeaway. Do you reach 3 times for one cup or grab 3 cups at the time? Pouring milk: grab cup by the handle, pour latte art and place the cup on the saucer while holding the handle all that time.

4. A minimal force applied - particularly addressing wrists. Knocking out coffee pucks, tamping and inserting handles into groupheads. You can perform all those gently. Your wrists will thank you. Also, making minimal noise gives you +5 to being elegant behind the bar.

5. Keep it close - this derives from #2. Try to stand close to the machine, you won't need to extend your arms while inserting handles. It's better to make a step than to reach away from the body. The length of the lever determines force at its base. Lifting any weight at arm's reach multiplies strain on your shoulder and spine.

I express the greatest appreciation for those who take every measure to ensure perfect extraction. But if it comes at the price of health - non-anatomical angles, excessive strain - I don't find it reasonable. How can we talk about sustainability if the barista wears out physically after a year in a busy cafe?





Design your barflow

1. Organise your space - pull grinders as close as possible, halve stacks of cups on the machine, keep lids/saucers/spoons at arms reach.

2. Choose your tools - pick what suits your style and your body.

Tamper - very important. There are several ergonomics friendly choices. Puqpress does the job for you. PUSH Tamper allows you to press at any angle you want. Traditional tamper - choose the most comfortable - light and fitting your hand. Some people like heavy tampers, but even if it gives more control (which I doubt), it's more weight to lift. If you do it hundreds of times a day it could be an issue.

Portafilters - usually you don't get to choose them, but if you have a chance, give it a thought. Their weight, grip comfort and control all matter.

Milk jugs - heavy, sharp edges, useless spout - obvious, but so often neglected.

Bar height - I can't stress enough how often it's a mistake in design. High volume bars designed for baristas 185+ cm is the most ridiculous idea. I've never heard a complaint about a bar being too low. The other way? Dozens of time.

All the ridiculous angles while tamping and shoulder impingement from reaching way above the head with every single shot... Discrimination of short people. Even a gender inequality issue as most women are shorter than men.

The lower the bar, the more comfortable it is. Within reason, of course. Anything above hip level is too high. Fortunately, there's a trend for low profile bars and machines.

3. Swap hands - The simplest way to cut down strain on your wrists or shoulders even by half. Many experienced baristas can tamp and pour basic patterns with their non-dominant arm. If you're not using your other hand yet, give it a try.

Why?

Muscular imbalances between sides of your body, leading to scoliosis and pelvis rotation. Accumulated strain on one arm. Bar flexibility - grinder on the opposite side of the machine. And maybe one day, you'll get famous at throwdown pouring with the non-dominant hand.

I find ergonomics behind the bar crucial to being a barista. I can't emphasise enough how important it is to train on that topic. This is not only about preventing injuries and being less tired while working. Applying the basic ergonomics rules will make you also faster and more elegant. Like a chef who creates a beautiful dish in an effortless, elegant manner.

If you want additional information on ergonomics in the coffee industry and hospitality in general click links below:




Tales Of The Cocktail: Stretch Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself: How Bartenders Can Prevent Common Workplace Injuries


Disclaimer: I do not benefit in any way from linking to particular products, the only purpose is to provide an example of great ergonomic designs


Title photo - Tasty Snaks

Back bend photo - Morten Rand-Hendriksen

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