Cuts, burns and falls await cooks who fail to take safety precautions in the kitchen

New York TimesSeptember 13, 2013 


Modern kitchen appliances and gadgets offer many opportunities for injury.


Today’s kitchens easily supplant the bathroom as the home’s most dangerous room. While scalds and falls on tile can inflict serious harm in the bathroom, modern kitchen appliances and gadgets offer many more opportunities for injury.

Just ask April Stewart Klausner, a New York illustrator and accomplished cook. Recently Klausner, 56, severed four tendons, multiple nerves and a blood vessel in her hand while pitting an avocado, something she’d done countless times.

The injury required more than three hours of surgical repair and many months of painful rehab. The therapists at Lang Hand Therapy in Manhattan told her she was the fourth “avocado victim” they’d seen that month.

“So add that to immersion blenders and mandolines ... and maybe the bathroom is not the most dangerous room in the house!” Klausner said in an email.

If the kitchen is dangerous, the kitchen triangle – the area between stove, sink and refrigerator – is ground zero when it comes to potential accidents, said P.J. Hamilton, chairman of emergency medicine for WakeMed in the Triangle.

“That’s where people are cutting, carrying and pouring things,” Hamilton said. “No one who is not needed, especially children, should be hanging out there, because there’s a much higher risk of being injured.”

Knowledgeable cooks say mindfulness is a key ingredient in kitchen safety. Don’t try to rush the food prep or cooking process.

Some kitchen hazards and how to avoid them include:

CUTS: For knives, the most frequently used of hazardous kitchen tools, two safety precautions are essential: They must be sharp (dull knives are more likely to slip and cut the user), and they must be stored separately and safely in their own drawer, in a wooden block or on a wall-mounted magnetic holder. They should never be left lying on a countertop or in a sink full of water or other equipment.

When slicing or mincing, keep fingers out of harm’s way. Cut on a sturdy surface, moving the knife’s edge away from your body. Use the right knife for each task: A serrated blade, for example, is best for bread and safer for the person slicing it.

Other sharp kitchen objects, like can lids, can cause nasty cuts. Be careful, too, when opening hard plastic packages, which often have sharp edges.

Broken glass should be swept up with a broom and dust pan and disposed of immediately. A damp but sturdy paper towel can be used to clean up tiny pieces of glass. Hamilton urges caution, especially when washing crystal or other delicate glassware by hand. “These items often break and end up cutting your hand,” she said.

BURNS: Keep dry oven mitts near the microwave, as well as the range and oven, and always use them. Do not substitute dish towels for pot holders, and remember that a wet mitt does not offer heat protection.

Pot handles should be turned inward, toward the center of the range, to prevent accidental tipping. Whenever possible, cook foods on the back burners.

Avoid steam burns by opening lids away from you. When cooking with hot oil, cover the pan with a spatter screen.

Do not wear loose sleeves or flowing clothes while cooking, and tie up long hair. Note the shoes worn by professional chefs: Clogs protect their feet in case hot water or oil spills on them.

If you suffer a burn, immediately hold the injured area under cold water for several minutes.

FIRES: Do not leave or store flammable materials near the stove or in the oven. Make sure pots on open flames hold enough liquid, and use a trivet when placing a hot pot on a wood or fabric surface.

Clean your oven often to keep it free of grease. If fats or oils catch fire, turn off the heat immediately but don’t try to pick up the pan. Never pour water on a grease fire; use salt or baking soda. Better yet, keep a fire extinguisher handy and know how to use it.

FALLS: Unnecessary climbs are a recipe for disaster. Keep often-used equipment and heavy pots within easy reach, and use high cupboards only for infrequently needed items and food products.

“One woman who reached up to pull something out of a cabinet pulled the cabinet over on her. She had significant injuries,” Hamilton said.

Never stand on chairs. Invest in a sturdy stool with wide steps and rubberized foot pads.

Remove tripping hazards from floors, including shoes and loose throw rugs. Though costly, cushioned rubber mats at the sink and food prep area are safer and more comfortable.

ELECTRIC SHOCKS: Modern kitchens are replete with electric tools that can result in life-threatening shocks if the power plug comes into contact with water. Read all warning labels and obey them. Use polarized plugs, and do not overload outlets. Dry your hands before plugging in and using appliances, and be sure to unplug an appliance before cleaning it.

POISONING: Cleaning products should never be stored in the same cabinet as foods, medications or supplements. Never transfer cleaning supplies to unmarked or emptied food containers.

CHILD SAFETY: If you have young children, grandchildren or friends or relatives who visit with children, keep cabinets containing cleaning products and potent seasonings secured with a safety lock.

Never cook with a child in your arms or a baby carried in a sling. Never leave a toddler loose in the kitchen when no adult is present and paying attention.

If children want to help with food preparation, give them age-appropriate tasks and supervise the undertaking. A 2-year-old can add cherry tomatoes to the salad; a 6-year-old can be taught how to cut soft vegetables; a 10-year-old may be able to slice meat.

“Children often want to help, but they should have adult supervision,” Hamilton said.

Contributions by News & Observer staff.

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