A barista’s biggest problem is no longer the customer who orders a large quarter-shot decaf coffee with rice milk. The repetitive motion of steaming milk and stamping espresso is increasingly causing arm injuries to baristas, commonly referred to as “barista’s elbow”.
The Supreme Court of the ACT recently awarded former barista, Christine D’Amico, nearly $600,000 in damages after she suffered neurological damage and was required to have a rib removed due to years of lifting and steaming jugs of milk.
Ms D’Amico worked for a not-for-profit organisation in a cafe at Calvary Hospital from 2004. She made coffee from 8:00am to 3:30pm on weekdays and would often receive individual orders of up to 20 coffees during peak periods in the morning. In order to steam milk for the coffees, Ms D’Amico was required to fill a stainless steel jug with cold milk and hold it under a steam nozzle for up to one minute. When full, the jug weighed almost two kilograms and there was no surface on which to rest the jug while the milk was steaming.
Over a period of two years, Ms D’Amico developed severe pain “like a toothache” from her right shoulder into her arm which then started to turn blue. Ms D’Amico’s fingers were also swollen. She reported these symptoms to her supervisor in April 2006 but no action was taken.
Ms D’Amico’s GP suspected that she might have a blood clot and sent her to the Calvary Hospital where she was admitted for four nights. Ms D’Amico was later diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and underwent surgery to remove her first rib on her right side. Following the surgery, Ms D’Amico attempted to return to work in the cafe on lighter duties but eventually quit due to pain in her arm.
Master Harper noted that Ms D’Amico’s employer should be applauded for the voluntary work and activities it carries out for the hospital. However, he went on to say that the nature of the organisation does not alter the duty it owed to Ms D’Amico to provide her with a safe place and safe system of work.
Master Harper was satisfied that her employer knew that Ms D’Amico had developed symptoms of pain, swelling and discolouration in April 2006 but nothing was done. On this basis, the employer was found to have breached the duty of care it owed to Ms D’Amico.
Employers generally should make themselves aware of practices which may result in repetitive stress injuries to employees and implement preventative measures (such as exercises and training on posture) to reduce the risk of such injuries from occurring. In this case, Ms D’Amico’s injuries may have been prevented by simply replacing the large jug for steaming milk with a smaller jug to reduce its weight when full or resting the jug on a shelf or other support under the steam nozzle. Given that there is a cafe every 10 paces in most Australian towns and cities, this won’t be the last we hear of barista’s elbow.