04 August 2008 by

The safety responsibilities of caterers working with hot beverages have come to the fore again following the latest scalding case - this time to a 13-month-old baby when a pot of what was reportedly ‘boiling' water fell from a Sussex café counter into his pushchair. The baby is believed to be scarred for life.

According to local press reports, the father blamed the café staff, although the café owner later said that first-aiders were on hand.

Among readers' comments to the Brighton Argus was one which said: ‘I have been in a coffee shop where this happened to a child and they had no idea what to do - training should be given in these places'.

A story in Coffee House magazine suggests that there is very little guidance on how café operators can plan their work to avoid such cases.

The magazine consulted various senior trade people but received few responses other than one vague reference to ‘duty of care'. One well-known manager observed that no supplier would dare give advice: "in a litigation-conscious society, if a case like this happens, the cafe owner will sue the advisor," he said.

The trainer Robert Henry of Another Cup, who is also behind the London School of Coffee's course on café management, has reported that he has researched health & safety and risk audits looking for guidance on the matter, and found none.

He has commented: "The general advice is to use hot water as close as possible to the point of dispense… and yet obviously, if you serve tea, there has to be some movement.

"Certainly, you must teach staff that a customer with a baby should be asked to sit at a table, and that you take the drink across. In general, avoid moving boiling water around."

Paul Meikle-Janney of Coffee Community, an experienced trainer and café designer, agreed that café owners should be urged to consider their working practices.

He said: "You can not get rid of all dangers in any environment which deals with hot drinks. You can put guard rails round a counter, but at some point you have to pass drinks across. Good design and layout can help to minimise accidents."

Steve Penk, UK co-ordinator for the Speciality Coffee association of Europe, has agreed: "You cannot remove the danger of hot water - but you can identify the risks, and you must maximise staff awareness of the dangers."

The history of the modern coffee business has been littered with scalding cases. The most notorious was the McDonalds case in New Mexico in 1992, when an elderly lady spilled the contents of a takeaway cup into her lap. She spent eight days in hospital, and when McDonalds refused to give her $20,000 for medical expenses, went to court . A jury awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages, reduced to $160,000 because the jury found the customer 20% at fault in the spill. However, the jury also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages.

Since that case, it is reported that Americans have brought 700 alleged cases of beverage scalding to court. A $10 million law suit was attempted in the USA last year, and a jury also awarded $668,000 to a man who suffered injuries from a hot beverage at a Disney theme park. In Britain, an airline recently settled a similar case for £25,000.

It was, with some cynicism, reported that the speciality coffee industry in Russia had come of age when its first scalding lawsuit occurred last year.

By Ian Boughton

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