What About the School Cafeteria Workers?


New York City has nearly 1,900 public schools, all of which provide meals to students every day during a normal (pre-pandemic) school year. That means the number of people staffing school kitchens is likely in the thousands, yet not much research has been done to assess whether they work at safe temperatures.

A new study by researchers at The Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy shows that the kitchen workers may be exposed to excessive heat. Professor Brian Pavilonis and 2020 Master’s graduate Michael Ierardi were authors on the study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene.

The researchers chose 10 NYC public schools to survey, including elementary, middle, and high schools. They measured temperature, humidity, wet-bulb globe temperature (a measure similar to heat index) and carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide levels, regularly throughout a full shift of about six to seven hours.

Three kitchens exceeded the heat stress levels recommended for an acclimatized worker doing heavy work, and most schools exceeded the recommended limit for new, un-acclimatized staff doing moderate or heavy work.

Because high heat exposure can lead to heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and fainting, the authors recommend that kitchen staff follow a work-rest schedule and stay hydrated. Schools could also help by providing air conditioning and dehumidifiers, and making sure new staff get proper training.

While the study is a good start, the authors say more work needs to be done to fully assess the situation in the city’s public schools. However, there is an initiative in the city to start making school meals from scratch, which would change the type of work done and heat produced in these kitchens, so it’s useful to have some baseline data now.

The research was conducted before city school buildings were closed by the pandemic.

Beyond SUM

Explore This Work

Heat stress risk among New York City public school kitchen workers: a quantitative exposure assessment
Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 2020

Work By

Brian Pavilonis (Assistant Professor, Environmental, Occupational, and Geospatial Health Sciences) | Profile 1