These days, at serious coffee bars, it’s not uncommon to see a barista brandishing a portafilter tattoo on her arm (that’s the cup with the handle that the ground espresso gets tamped into before being locked into the head of the machine). It’s as much a fashion statement as a badge of honor among the new breed of professional craft baristas. Another sight you might come across is a barista wearing an elbow or wrist guard. This one is not quite a fashion statement; it’s what’s prescribed when coffee bar workers fall prey to the repetitive strain injury (RSI) commonly known as “barista wrist.”
As coffee culture becomes more sophisticated and specialized, coffee bar workers dedicated to the principles and practices that result in a flawless cup of joe are at a greater risk for injury. Coffee bar owners are increasingly aware of the RSI threat to their staff. Many have retrained their workers to take the physical pressure off their vulnerable joints, while others are ensuring that their bars are designed to be ergonomically safe to begin with. It’s something to keep in mind next time your order that skinny latte.
“The counter top is 33 inches high for best ergonomic packing posture for the average employee,” writes David Shomer, owner of Espresso Vivace in Seattle, of his coffee bars’ design. He also sells the Ergo-Packer, a professional tamp designed to ”distribute the force of packing espresso, when combined with proper technique, evenly throughout the human hand — thus avoiding occupational soreness or other chronic pains of packing espresso for a living.”
Gimme! Coffee has invited a yoga instructor to its Trumansburg, NY location to help its employees learn better tamping posture and a few stretching exercises that could take the pressure off their joints and muscles.
“Tamping is definitely a point in drink preparation where baristas can potentially hurt themselves,” says Gimme! regional manager Devorah Freudiger on the company’s blog. “It’s hard to tamp in a way that is not stressful to your body unless you are quite tall because keeping your shoulder blades on your back is hard with a tamping counter that is too high for your body. The best thing we found to do is to keep our wrists straight and make sure that the power for the tamp came from the core of our body, never our fingers or palms.”
“’Bartista wrist’ is just tendonitis,” explains Gabrielle Rubinstein-Cheong, who owns Joe the Art of Coffee in New York, with her brother, Jonathan. “If you’re getting it, you probably are using a tamping method that’s slightly off-balance. Your entire arm should be in a position where the pressure is evenly distributed so that your wrist is hardly getting any pressure at all. So, if someone is just using their wrist to tamp, they’re going to get sore pretty quickly. I know that because eight years ago, when I started baristaing, I would get it. But someone showed me a way to avoid it.”
At Joe, now she is the one showing baristas how to avoid injury. It’s not just for their sake, but for yours: A crooked arm can result in a poorly pulled espresso shot.
“It can really change the flavor of your coffee. If you’re tamping crooked, you’re going to overextract the coffee on one side and underextract on the other, and the coffee will taste really bad,” says Rubenstein-Cheong. “So, getting the tamp right is really important. We train people so that everybody’s arm position is exactly the same. I don’t really hear of anybody getting barista wrist anymore at Joe.”
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