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The service industry is a high-pressure environment. The staff of restaurants and bars must anticipate customers’ wants and provide them with an evening worth their money. Blood sugars run low; tempers run high. At most places, the staff is working at top speed in cramped spaces. Throw in knives, fire, glassware, and stairs, and a restaurant turns into a veritable minefield. Here are some stories from the front lines, where employees have had to work through pain or, worse, had their nights ruined with a trip to the hospital.

Stocking glasses

Possible injuries: Falling off ladders, cuts from broken glasses

Injury report: Justin, who now works at a D.C. restaurant that, like his last name, he’d rather not state, started his career as a busboy in Florida. One night he was standing on a stepstool, stocking margarita glasses on a high shelf, when one of them fell. He went to grab it, but it smashed on the ledge.
“A big shard cut me on the forearm, on the soft side of the forearm,” Justin says. “I had never seen blood like that.” A regular customer, who was a doctor, was walking by and took a look at the wound. “He said I could get a stitch or two, but it probably wasn’t worth it. I finished my shift.” Justin still has a scar, which he considers a battle wound. After it happened, he thought, “Now I’m seasoned.”

Polishing wine glasses

Possible injuries: Cuts, carpal tunnel syndrome

Injury report: A little more than a year ago, Amy Whitehurst, a former server at Komi, noticed that her right wrist hurt. Her doctor sent her to a physical therapist who gave her a diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome. “The only thing that made any sense was polishing wine glasses,” Whitehurst says of the cause. “I had to go to physical therapy once a week for three months….I had to wear a wrist guard all the time.” And she had to stop polishing glasses. Whitehurst now works at Hank’s Oyster Bar, where, fortunately, busboys help with the task.

Prep stations

Possible injuries: Knife wounds

Injury report: Sometimes, unfortunately, the injury is not self-inflicted. When Bill Silcott, manager of Poste Moderne Brasserie, was working in the kitchen of a now defunct restaurant in Colorado, one of his co-workers found out the hard way not to get in the way. “I was in the kitchen prepping for the day’s business,” says Silcott. “I was halving avocados for the Cobb salad. I was in my zone.” As Silcott prepared one avocado after another, he would pick up a new one from the bin by stabbing it with his butcher knife. A co-worker was bustling around him and ignored warnings from Silcott to keep his distance. “He was reaching into the box right when I was swinging my knife down. It caught him in the back of the hand.” Silcott let go of the knife, which was stuck in the man’s hand. His co-worker had to get stitches and never returned to work at that restaurant. Silcott still carries around guilt. “I can remember the look on his face when it happened.”

Injury report: About a year ago, Eric Kocmich, who works in the kitchen of Poste, was preparing for service. “I was slicing red onion on a bias,” says Kocmich. “I was in a hurry, and I cut off the tip of my thumb. No bone. Just skin. I lost consciousness.” He was taken to the hospital, where the thumb was sutured, and Kocmich returned to work in a couple days. He describes it as “a moment of humility….I learned the sight of blood and flesh makes me woozy.”

Stairs

Possible injuries: Bruises, sprains, fractures, broken bones

Injury report: It’s not surprising that servers trip once in a while, especially when they have to go up and down stairs throughout their shifts. One night at Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar, Stacey Milchman fell going down the stairs in the kitchen during service. “I fell from the second step down to the floor and hit my knee really bad and had a huge bruise on it,” Milchman says. She stopped working, iced the knee, and, since it was later in the night, was allowed to take the rest of the shift off.

Stove

Possible injuries: Burns of varying severity

Injury report: Last July, Jonathan Copeland, a cook at Palena, was prepping for service. “I was pretty careless,” says Copeland. “I picked up a big pot of almost boiling water with one hand. In the other hand, I had a spoon.” As he tried to make room on a counter for the pot, “it fell back onto me, on my legs. I was wearing shorts at the time.” The scorching water ran down his legs and into his shoes. “I had first degree burns.…I had second and third degree burns where it soaked into my socks.” His co-workers fetched a bucket of ice water and found Copeland a ride to the hospital. It was two months before he could return to work.

Bar

Possible injuries: Cuts

Injury report: In a high-volume bar, it’s only natural that glasses or bottles will break at some point in the night. A bartender, who wished not to be named, at Madam’s Organ discovered a broken beer bottle when he reached into a beer cooler and cut his finger. “I should have gotten stitches, but I wrapped it up and kept working,” he says. “I wrapped it up and put a finger condom on it. But it broke, and I had to put another one on.” He has a scar to remember the night.

Injury report: Even if the injury an employee suffers isn’t one that sends her to the emergency room, it can still make for a hellish shift. Julie Yoder, a bartender at the now shuttered Warehouse, had a rough night from opening a bottle. She sliced her finger “on the stubborn plastic top of an Honest tea,” she writes in an e-mail. “Those fuckers really didn’t wanna come off.” Although the cut wasn’t stitch-worthy, she was reminded of it for hours. “Alcohol [would] get into the tiny cut all night during the shift and sting me over and over and over.”

Wine cellar

Possible injuries: Falling, bruises, broken bones

Injury report: As bad as it is for an employee to be injured, it’s even worse for a restaurant when a customer is hurt. Shortly after opening BlackSalt in 2004, chef Jeff Black had to run down to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to take care of some business; it was the first shift he had missed. BlackSalt stores its wine in a cellar that is accessed through the floor by a ship’s ladder. There is a rule that the cellar is never used during service. However, on this day, an investor was working in the cellar, and the management was uncomfortable telling him the cellar was off-limits. The investor was claustrophobic, so he left the hatch open and placed chairs around the hole as a warning. “A guest was looking at the fish,” says Black. “She subconsciously stepped around the pylon and fell in the hole.” Black was able to watch the scene later on his security camera. “She was very upset. As anyone would be,” says Black. Aside from some back pain, for which she underwent physical therapy, the woman was surprisingly fine. Black still seems shaken by the incident. “It was the darkest day I ever had as a restaurant owner.”