Research Findings

Dangerous workplaces and the counterintuitive value of scars

November 9, 2023

Think of a dangerous job. One where workers experience daily risk and suffering. Where the accidental burn, cut, and blood is to be expected— maybe even mundane. Perhaps what comes to mind is a firefighter barreling into a fiery building, a meat packing plant worker who trims sides of beef, or a police officer in a foot chase with an armed suspect.

What likely did not come to mind are the folks who whipped up the plate of palak paneer you dined on last Saturday or baked the croissant you nibbled this morning: chefs, cooks, and other restaurant kitchen workers. But, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that workers at dining establishments—about 2.3 million people in the United States— experience comparatively more pain and injury than those of other professions, including the stereotypically dangerous ones I mentioned earlier (see table below).

 Cuts reported (per 10,000)Burns reported (per 10,000)
All workers 91.4
Kitchen workers17.69.1

The culture of a dangerous workplace

In a recent article, I explore the danger and culture behind these statistics using the stories and bodies of 50 kitchen workers and 120 hours of participant-observation in a restaurant-bar. What I found was that the culinary industry is a high-pressure work environment— think television depictions in FX’s ‘The Bear’ and/or Bravo’s ‘Top Chef’—where risk, suffering, and pain are key ingredients to work. These are accentuated by a workplace culture that normalizes apathy towards said dangers. Here, rather than envisioning pain or injury as something to avoid, cultural norms and interactions socialize workers into viewing pain as something to embrace or, at the very least, an ordinary reality of life (findings supported by the work of Robin Burrow and colleagues and Gary Alan Fine).

Chefs and industry old timers are the primary agents of this socialization. For example, one culinary school chef instructor I spoke with named Natalie explained, “We had one [student] here cut himself pretty badly. He went [to the hospital and] got five stitches, and came back to class and I was like, ‘Yes! That is what you need to do.’ …You don’t just get to not come back to work because you hurt yourself, like, come on!” Natalie’s public praise of the student’s resilience and attitude reinforced in her students that restaurant kitchens are workplaces where hardiness is required. She explained, “because in a real kitchen this is still the culture… Wrap that shit in tape, and get back on the grill.” Her sentiment was echoed by numerous others I spoke with.

The role of scars

Encounters with suffering and pain are represented by physical scars— reddish, discolored marks on forearms from burns from the grill; raised keloids on hands from the slip of a knife. Scars such as these adorned nearly all of the workers I interviewed, as well as myself from years as a line cook and my month-long participant-observation stint. And they were displayed with pride by most people. These markings, I found, were not thought of as evidence of mistakes or lack of experience, but instead as physical proof of being a part of a community of workers who labor daily in tough and dangerous workspaces. Scars in this context became proof of knowledge, authenticity, and grit.  

This attitude towards scars is a paradox. Most of the time, we think of accidental injuries—and their corresponding physical remnant— as errors and failure. The failure of carelessly handling a hot pan, the failure of adding wet ingredients too quickly to 350-degree Fahrenheit oil, the failure of letting the floor become slippery, and so on. But in the dangerous cultural context of the restaurant kitchen where injuries are a given, scars instead are proof of a hardened body.

Tension can, of course, arise if someone has too many scars. They may be seen as particularly reckless or incapable. So, I found that scars alone are not the only symbols chefs and cooks rely on to display and evaluate experience and expertise. Additional items must be used to support the assertions of their scars and as well as their nonchalant attitudes.

One of these items are the tales that accompany injury. Recounting suffering, interviewees explained, narratively reopens a cook’s wound for the entertainment of others, while also displaying their know-how. All of this occurs, notably, without the risk of actual pain. For example, I talked with a cook named Chrissy, who reveled in the stories of her scars. “Have you seen my arms?” she said, rotating them and pointing to darkened burns. She placed the blame of her many “fresh” marks on working at her restaurant’s sauté station. “It’s like mostly, like, dropping fish into the oil and it— ksssssss! Or, I’ll get the mushroom cloud [of fire, oil, and smoke]. That happened the other day. My chef was like, ‘Oooh! I saw that.’ I was like, ‘Yup! It’s gonna burn.’”

Chrissy, here, used sounds, sights, and audience reactions in her story, turning her mundane, daily burns into an exciting sensory experience. She also played up the injury for a few audiences— her chef (in the moment), herself (during and after), and me, her interviewer, (subsequently). What I found was that this sort of storytelling allows scars to help workers’ occupational mobility and makes public their understanding of the intricacies and dangers of their craft.

Food and cooking-related tattoos were another feature used by many that I spoke to to support the claims of their scars. Tattoos of chef’s knives, cuts of meat, vegetables, cooking equipment, and livestock announced workers’ group, culture, and risk-taking culinary membership. Further, like scars, tattoos are manipulations of the flesh that come with pain— a pain that also must be conquered and suffered through.

Badges of membership and mobility

Pain and suffering tend to be a solitary experience. While those around you may empathize or sympathize, they cannot actually share in your discomfort. However, in dangerous workplaces, like the restaurant kitchen, I found that work-related scars act as visible proof to others of having felt a similar sting of a serrated knife or scorch of a grease burn— of having felt that sensory pain and overcoming it.

There are, certainly, other social groups that place value on suffering and scars, such as the boxers featured in the work by Loic Wacquant and mothers who give birth via cesarean section and who view their surgical scars a “badge of honor” in work by Sally Johnson. But what sets chefs and cooks apart is how scars are used for occupational gain, and the processes they utilize to do so. They performatively display their scars, tell stories of injury and risk, and cultivate a workplace culture that applauds danger and pain. Thus, scars that are the product of mistake and error are counterintuitively leveraged into a valuable source of mobility and status.

Read more

Ellen T. Meiser. “’It was, ugh, it was so gnarly. And I kept going’: The cultural significance of scars in the workplace” in Qualitative Sociology 2023.

Image: Ellen T. Meiser

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