The recent explosion of an espresso machine in a British café may be a rare event but it has highlighted the suspicion that many catering managers do not ensure clear safety procedures are put in place, writes Ian Boughton.
For every catering business serving tea and coffee, there will be one immediate effect from the recent explosion of an espresso machine in a shopping centre coffee bar: the health and safety spotlight will be on every food and beverage manager as never before.
When the national news media reported the explosion of an espresso machine in a Sainsbury's café which landed 17 people in hospital, the coffee trade replied, correctly, that the incident was such a rare event that only one similar accident could be recalled worldwide.
However, coffee machine suppliers pointed out that the incident did more than reinforce what they always preached about maintenance and the legal requirements for espresso machines to undergo pressure-vessel inspections, tests, and certifications. It brought to the fore the suggestion that a vast number of hospitality businesses simply ignore the rules.
"As soon as the news came out, our phone lines lit up like a Christmas tree," reports Steve Penk, marketing director of La Spaziale espresso machines. "Big catering organisations were saying ‘do an inspection!' It is a testimony to how few of them think of this on a regular basis, and so what must come from this incident is a lot more responsibility."
Very few caterers follow the precautions, he says firmly. "There are tens of thousands of espresso machines out there, and comparatively few tests go on. I would hazard a guess that there are far more espresso machines which have not been certified than those which have!
"Having a legal requirement is one thing, and policing it is another. I know of only one or two insurance companies who insist on it, and regional Heath and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors see it in different ways - some are hot on it and some aren't."
This view is backed by Adrian Maxwell, managing director of Fracino, the only British maker of espresso machines. "It is advisable to have your machine inspected annually and keep a current certificate as part of your risk assessment. The HSE are supposed to enforce this but seem to be very slack, probably due to ignorance of the equipment."
They will be getting firmer from now on, says Duncan Gaffney, a director of the Coffeetech engineering organisation. "That accident has massive implications - every single caterer with an espresso machine can now expect to be high on the hit-list of their local H&S inspector."
The rules are clear, he says, their execution is not. All owners of espresso machines come under the Pressure Systems Safety Regulations, which require maintenance by a "competent person" on a regular basis, with safety valves checked for operation. The certificate must be backed up by the inspector's credentials of competence."
Coffee suppliers say it is time for the catering trade to think again about their policies. It is often a condition of insurance that pressure testing is up to date, says Matt Tuffee, national accounts manager at La Cimbali. "As it is impossible to see inside the machine's boiler, the pressure test is designed to ensure that everything is working as it should be - specifically the safety valve. Cimbali still provides a lifetime guarantee on its boilers, which pass through a new process called Ruveco Teck, whereby the metal surface area of the boiler is treated to protect components from overly acidic water that may cause corrosion, thus weakening them."
Too many operators fail to realise that limescale does not just affect taste, but causes corrosion, adds Elaine Higginson, managing director at United Coffee. That is why water-treatment filters have a safety importance.
"Some customers think we are selling regular maintenance when it is not needed," says Bob Mitchell, director of Caffeine Fix and a member of the Association of Independent Espresso Engineers. "The truth is that machines breaking down due to negligence are my biggest cause of stress! The cost of boiler inspections will never be popular, but it is a legal requirement, and failure to comply could cost a lot more than just money. And it's only going to get stricter."
There are things that caterers can do to help themselves, says the coffee trade. At Espresso Service, managing director Louie Salvoni recommends starting with a very basic piece of instruction - reminding your staff that they are dealing with hot water. Caterers should also ensure that areas on the equipment that could put the public at risk - such as steam and hot water outlets, and parts that are hot to the touch - cannot be reached by customers.
Don't try to service an espresso machine yourself, says Marco Olmi, director of Drury Tea and Coffee. "Renewing the odd nozzle and seal is fine. But when it comes to taking the back and sides off… well, I heartily recommend you don't do it."
John Cook, sales director at Fracino, suggests simple day-to-day checks: "It doesn't take more than a second to glance at the pressure gauge, and keep an eye on the water level in the sight glass. The temptation is often to carry on and hope the machine will sort itself out, but don't - it simply isn't worth taking the risk."
It is not only espresso machines which are involved, say suppliers to the hot-beverage trade. Common-sense precautions apply on all beverage equipment.
"We build safeguards into our equipment," says Chris York, sales director at Marco Beverage Systems. "In the Filtro Shuttle bulk filter coffee machine, the locking brew basket cannot be removed while a brew is in progress - hot coffee cannot be spilled over any operative who might look to see how the brew is progressing. The urn itself is removable for use at remote locations, but it is not itself powered - the coffee stays hot through good insulation. This means there is no risk of leaving a plug in."
At Bravilor, physical and software protection cuts power to the boiler elements if the machine detects over-temperature or incorrect water flow, says managing director Keith Baldwin. "But users must be aware that safety does not stop with the manufacturer - don't dismiss the importance of manufacturer's guidelines about cleaning, de-scaling or maintenance. Too often it is casual disregard for the instruction manual that leads to machine failure."
Do very simple risk assessments, says Angus McKenzie, managing director at Kimbo. "If your steam wand is really hot, get grips fitted. A black coffee has the greatest risk of burns, because of its higher temperature, so reduce your fill-line on this drink. Don't ever mix up the wrong cups and saucers, which is a recipe for disaster, and if you use a carrying and serving tray, consider a non-slip liner."
There are even issues with cafetieres, says David Latchem, managing director at Café du Monde. "If espresso-grind coffee is used, the particles are too close to allow the liquor to pass through. This can result in a piston effect, with very hot coffee being squirted up the sides of the cafetière."
The issues of hot beverage safety are so numerous that, following the Sainsbury's accident, a very big insurance company considered producing a guide on the matter for caterers… and then decided the situation was so complex, it would not risk putting its name to anything in writing, and scrapped the whole idea.
And so, inconvenient though it may be, responsibility for setting the house rules on coffee machine safety remains with the catering manager.
One more scalded customer is too many, the new report into safety procedures and precautions from the Coffee Council, can be downloaded atwww.coffee-house.org.uk/CH8CoffeeCouncilScald.pdf.
[Café du Monde](http://www.cafedumonde.co.uk)
[Coffeetech ](http://www.coffeetech.co.uk)0870 770 2952
[Drury ](http://www.drury.uk.com)020 7740 1100
[Espresso Service ](http://www.espressoservice.co.uk)0844 692 2222
020 8743 8959
[La Spaziale ](http://www.laspaziale.co.uk)01246 454400
[United Coffee House Association of Independent Espresso Engineers 0845 880 2393