Occupational Hazards of Bartending

Bartender demonstrates cocktail shaking technique

We’ve heard of carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow, and we know that there’s hardly a major league pitcher who hasn’t had rotator cuff surgery. It turns out that being a bartender is just as dangerous.

Over the past decade, the cocktail culture has exploded across America. Mixologists regularly compete with each other to invent popular new drinks, and they also love to show off their technique. Many cocktails require vigorous shaking to blend the components together, and bartenders have incorporated a bit of theater into their over-the-shoulder gyrations. As a result, many of them are now suffering from Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI).

Occupational therapists equate the strain of cocktail shaking with a tennis serve or the act of throwing a baseball. Major league pitchers usually throw no more than 100 pitches per game, and tennis players are unlikely to serve more than 300 times in a seven-set match. Bartenders, however, will shake each cocktail 30-40 times, and repeat the process on hundreds of occasions each night. It’s no wonder that many of them are sustaining injuries to their wrists, shoulders and backs.

Unlike big-league pitchers and tennis stars, bartenders aren’t hauling in millions of dollars each year. Some of them do very well, but most are employed by establishments that don’t offer health insurance. On top of the occupational hazards that promote RSI, many are on their feet for 8-12 hours per night, have to bend and twist their bodies constantly, and lift heavy cases of liquor at the beginning and end of each shift.

To make matters worse, the Kold-Draft ice machine has become the machine of choice for the booming cocktail culture. Kold-Draft cubes are larger than normal, and are preferred by bartenders because they chill drinks more quickly and dissolve slower. They also require more physical motion to incorporate them into the drink, making the stress worse.

If you’re a home bartender preparing for a holiday party or a professional toiling in the trenches every night, there are a few safeguards you can take. Try to lower your shaking position to chest or waist height—if you can see the shaker, you’re less likely to injure yourself. Alternating your shaking arm can also be extremely helpful. The best thing you can do, quite simply, is not succumb to the temptation to show off. And what if you’re a customer watching a bartender who’s putting on a show for you? An extra buck or two might compensate him (or her) for the pain.


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