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The ergonomics of kitchen equipment

08 December 2005
The ergonomics of kitchen equipment

Everyday tasks like driving a car, riding a bike or sitting at an office desk would be unthinkable without being able to match bodily dimensions to those of the equipment, typically by adjusting the height and angle of the seating. Yet kitchen staff spend hours standing at large cooking ranges with no way of varying working height. The range also makes big physical demands when deep ovens fitted below the cooking top need to be accessed frequently to deal with large pans.

Whether a chef is a petite 5ft or a towering 6ft 6in, he or she is expected to deal with 850mm- to 900mm-high stove-tops, a dimension that has served as an industry standard for more than half a century. While sensitive to ergonomic needs, range manufacturers would argue that there are substantial re-engineering costs and little commercial incentive for changing such a fundamental dimension. After all, several members of staff in various shapes and sizes may be required to work on the same range.

At last month's conference of the Professional Association for Catering Education such arguments were turned on their head with the launch of a "rise-and-lower" range. Hydraulic rams at each corner enable the working height of the top to be set, at the press of a button, to anywhere between 650mm and 925mm.

The unit, developed for UK caterers by Charvet UK, has induction cooking tops at each end of a 1,700mm-long range, which can be built in either a single-width (625mm) or double-width island. Other modular top components can be incorporated, but not, so far, gas burners, which should be possible with flexible hoses, according to Charvet UK director Ian Clow.

A key factor in developing the range was the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and the need for catering schools to consider the requirements of people with physical disabilities. "Some places have put in low-level benches and dropped a couple of induction units on top," says Clow. "But we wanted to take things a stage further, which also gives us a more varied application for able-bodied people of varying heights. We also wanted a unit which was mobile and could be used for demonstration cooking without the need for extraction in front-of-house areas." He is reticent about quoting the likely extra cost of rise-and-fall but points out that the equipment should be eligible for DDA grants.

Kitchen consultant Andrew Powis, managing director of Sterling Foodservice Design, recently worked on a scheme where he specified a bench with manually adjustable height to suit a very tall pastry chef. He believes such benches - made by companies such as Richard Craven - can suit staff height variations and also situations involving disabled people and children. But he has not, as yet, encountered a need for variable-height ranges.

Peter Evans, product development manager at Hobart UK, sees the 850-900mm height as an industry standard compatible with most table and worktop heights. However, he points out that the mix-and-match nature of today's range designs can solve various physical problems. For example, chefs who do a lot of pan work can opt for boiling tables without any cooking equipment underneath. "This means that they don't need to move aside to allow their colleagues to remove roasting trays from an under-oven," Evans points out.

Conversely, the company can offer range-type ovens with a stainless-steel work surface on top rather than a hob, avoiding the burn or spill risks which can occur when hot pans are placed directly on to burner tops.

Thanks to modular design, various other tunes are now being played on traditional range-oven components, such as the option of refrigerated drawers instead of an oven on the Elite six-burner range from Imperial Catering Equipment. Several Continental range manufacturers and suppliers, such as Bonnet, Angelo Po and Dawson, make a big feature of under-range options with, for instance, pass-through ovens with door access on each side of an island range.

Door design Ergonomically, the most contentious issue on ovens built under ranges concerns door operation. There are still two distinct schools of thought: access by a single drop-down door, or via side-hinged doors. "There's a lot of lifting and stretching going on when working on a cooking range," says John Scott, design manager at Falcon Food Service Equipment. On Falcon's Dominator, the double doors are the side-hinged variety. "The chef can get closer to the oven shelf racks, so there is less stretching to lift out pans than with a drop-down door," Scott claims.

Nick McDonald, marketing and export director of Lincat, agrees, pointing out that side-opening doors make it easier to maintain a safe, straight-backed posture when moving heavy dishes in and out of the more cavernous British style of roasting and general-purpose oven. European manufacturers, by contrast, often favour shallower ovens with drop-down doors. Ergonomics aside, the latter can, he suggests, have safety issues. "It's very easy when holding a large dish not to see a drop-down door which has been left open," says McDonald.

Roger Flanagan, managing director of Universal Foodservice Equipment, believes that there is still a strong argument for the drop-down door, as fitted on Italian-made Baron ranges and many other imported ovens. For a start, they provide a shelf suitable for resting food trays while moving them in and out. However, ovens mounted at waist height on stands - rather than under hobs - are, he feels, the best way to avoid bending and back-strain problems. "Ergonomic design is all about making life generally better for people using the equipment."

Few would disagree, and the majority of combi, convection and steaming ovens are available for stand-alone use with stands and trolley bases. In fact, even traditional-style ovens normally fitted under ranges can now be specified in stand-alone shoulder-height versions with a new option just available in the Athanor series from Signature-FSE. Built as a standard gastronorm 1/1 classic French finishing oven in its own stand-alone stainless-steel casing, it can be stand-mounted or stacked on top of a heated holding drawer cabinet.

Steve Loughton, managing director of Enodis Distribution UK, believes that ergonomics and work flow needs to be built into a total game plan when designing the kitchen. He says: "All too often, however, the user forgets these considerations when space or cost is of vital importance, or if only a limited upgrade is taking place."

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