A grillers life is not a healthy one



Chicken is the second most popular meat after pork. Seventy billion chickens are killed every year to satisfy global demand. That is almost ten chickens for every person on the planet per year. Almost everybody indulges in grilled, fried or roasted chicken to a point of obsession.

The chicken industry

While fast food outlets that sell chicken are everywhere, there are 55 000 KFC restaurants, 1200 Nando’s and tens of thousands of others. The chicken industry is also a massive employer – from farm to the table, millions are employed. But there is a darker side to this industry – apart from the conditions that chickens are reared, that is the health of those that spend all day grilling our favourite meal. This item explores the occupational health risks to chicken grillers and poses the question; is enough being done to protect them.


There is no doubt that grillers suffer respiratory disorders. A conversation with an ex-griller of eight years told of poor conditions where many colleagues frequently took sick leave with respiratory and eye problems. In some cases staff took two to three months off without pay to recover. Grillers worked six-to-eight-hour shifts. Allegedly, health and safety inspectors were rarely seen in kitchens, spending more time in the manager’ office possibly being bribed; the efficacy of ventilation systems not inspected and the air around the grills untested for toxicity. While extractor fans removed much of fumes, the critical point was when chicken pieces were basted and placed back onto the heat. At that point the smoke was considerable and much of it escaped extraction. As is often the case with industrial health and safety or indeed environmental issues, governments are unwilling to act, believing it would lead to disinvestment and unemployment. In doing so a large cadre of employees are at risk.

So why are cooking fumes dangerous?

Researchers at the University of Columbia determined that when cooking over high heat, especially an open flame, grillers are exposed to two main carcinogens: heterocyclic aromatic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Studies show HCAs and PAHs cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer. HCAs develop in meat when amino acids and creatine (muscle proteins) react to high heat. The amount of HCAs increases the longer meat is exposed to the heat. PAHs are chemicals produced as fat burns in the flame and can attach to meat cooking over an open fire. Grillers are also exposed to PAHs in smoke. (Cigarette smoke and air pollution also contain PAHs, which partly explains why smoking and air pollution are linked to different cancers).  https://www.cuimc.columbia.edu/news/do-grilled-foods-cause-cancer. Similarly when chicken is grilled, various chemicals can be released in the fumes, some of which may have toxic properties. PAHs are a group of chemicals that can be formed when fat from the chicken drips onto the hot coals or grilling surface and is then released in the smoke. PAHs are known to be carcinogenic and can potentially cause respiratory and other health issues. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs): HCAs are formed when meat, including chicken, is cooked at high temperatures, such as during grilling. HCAs have been shown to have carcinogenic properties in animal studies, and some studies suggest a possible link between HCA exposure and certain types of cancer in humans.


Acrylamide: Acrylamide is a chemical that can be formed when certain foods, including chicken, are cooked at high temperatures, such as during grilling. Acrylamide has been shown to have potential neurotoxic and carcinogenic properties in animal studies, although its potential health effects in humans are still being studied. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): VOCs are organic chemicals that can be released as fumes during grilling, including from marinades, sauces, and other flavourings used on chicken. Some VOCs have been associated with respiratory and other health issues, and their potential risks depend on the specific type and concentration of VOCs present in the fumes.

It’s important to note that the presence and concentration of these chemicals in the fumes from grilling chicken can vary depending on factors such as cooking temperature, cooking time, type of marinades or sauces used, and ventilation conditions. Proper ventilation, using lower-fat cuts of chicken, and avoiding excessive charring or burning of meat during grilling can help reduce the potential formation and release of these harmful chemicals in the fumes. Additionally, following safe grilling practices, such as using appropriate temperatures, avoiding flare-ups, and using proper cooking techniques, can help minimize the risks associated with fume exposure during chicken grilling.

Occupational risk

Kitchen workers could generally be considered as having a medium to high occupational risk. In order to protect grillers from potential health risks associated with fume exposure while grilling chicken, the following recommended practices are suggested: Ensuring proper ventilation in the grilling area is crucial to minimize the concentration of fumes. Grilling should be done in well-ventilated outdoor areas or under commercial-grade ventilation systems in indoor settings to allow fumes to dissipate effectively. Grillers should wear appropriate PPE, such as gloves, aprons, and eye protection, to protect their skin and eyes from potential contact with fumes, marinades, sauces, and other grilling-related substances. Depending on the level of fume exposure, grillers may need to wear respiratory protection, such as N95 respirators or other suitable masks, to reduce inhalation of potentially harmful fumes. This is especially important in enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces. Following safe grilling practices, such as using proper cooking temperatures, avoiding excessive charring or burning of meat, and minimizing flare-ups, can help reduce the formation and release of potentially harmful fumes. Ensuring that grillers take regular breaks and are not exposed to fumes for extended periods of time can help reduce their overall exposure and minimize health risks. Employers should comply with local regulations and guidelines related to workplace safety, ventilation, and PPE requirements for grilling operations. The problem is that many kitchens are integrated into the eating experience, diners being happy to see their mouth-watering pieces of meat being freshly and specially cooked for them. Imagine the grillers and others wearing N95 respirators – it would most certainly no look good. As we pleasure ourselves on tasty grilled chicken, spare  a thought that grillers remain on the occupational health and safety front line until, that is, the authorities take steps to ensure better controls.