Katelyn Rewko always dreamt of becoming a chef and at the age of 21, she was doing exactly that.
The young woman was working in a job she loved, at Brisbane restaurant Cha Cha Char.
But in 2017, a devastating workplace accident ended that dream, leaving Mrs Rewko out of work and in ongoing pain and discomfort.
On the day the incident occurred, Mrs Rewko was asked to cook a duck parfait — a dish which was cooked inside a tray of water in an oven over several hours.
The oven in question was placed on top of a bench, far out of reach of Mrs Rewko, who is less than 160cm — which meant she always needed to step onto a crate to use it.
That day, some dinner rolls had also been placed on a tray inside the oven to warm, and Mrs Rewko was asked to retrieve them.
But at some point, the positions of the two trays were switched — and because Mrs Rewko couldn’t see inside them, she ended up mistakenly pulling the tray filled with the hot water, spilling it over her and badly burning both arms in just seconds.
Mrs Rewko, now 23, told news.com.au she was “always scared” she would get hurt when pulling heavy items out of the high oven and that she was “cautious” around it.
“Normally if I’m doing something that involves cooking with hot water I’d get one of the taller boys to get it out for me, but I thought it was just bread,” she explained.
“I had only just become qualified and it was the first kitchen I’d ever worked in, so I was under the impression it (the oven position) was normal. Whenever I questioned anything I got in trouble so I would do what I was told, put my head down and not complain.”
Mrs Rewko said she was in shock immediately after the accident.
“My arms were still burning so I put them under cold water and I said I needed to go … They didn’t call an ambulance; they called my mum to pick me up. Obviously seeing me in so much pain, she was in shock too, and she didn’t know what to do,” she said.
“It was the most pain I’ve ever felt before. I was shaking. My arms were on fire, I couldn’t think straight — it was just burning. It felt like my arms were falling off — I had blisters from it and my arms ended up getting infected because it wasn’t acted on fast enough; I didn’t get proper treatment.”
Mrs Rewko’s mother ended up taking her to a GP, and she was off work for a month. During that time, she struggled to sleep and her husband had to help her with basic tasks like showering and changing due to her injuries.
“The burns blistered and I had second-degree burns … my arms looked like bubble wrap. It took about a month for my skin to heal enough for me to go back to work,” she said.
Mrs Rewko went back to work after a month but was in so much pain she was unable to work at full capacity and felt she had no choice but to resign.
Out of work and needing an income to meet her car repayments, Mrs Rewko eventually found work as a cook at a child care centre, and later left the kitchen to work directly with the children.
While she was grateful to have a job, she said it came with a significant pay cut of up to $20,000 per year and that it was “soul crushing” to leave the industry she loved.
She said the accident had also affected her relationship with her husband, who was also a chef, and that she sometimes lashed out at him subconsciously because she envied his career.
“I didn’t notice I was doing it until he pointed it out, and I just thought, ‘I’m a monster’. That is hard for me, for my husband to be a successful chef,” she said.
Mrs Rewko still has some scarring and discolouration on her arms and is “uncomfortable all the time”, while some movements cause fresh pain.
But she said the hardest part was having her career affected by the accident.
“I’m scared I’m not good enough anymore because I’ve been out of the industry for nearly three years, and I’m angry that I’ve lost this many years when I could have excelled more,” she said.
“It has been a big setback physically and mentally and also for my career and even my pay cheque and my livelihood … I’ve been struggling when it comes to paying the bills.”
She urged other workers to speak up if they noticed any safety concerns in the workplace, and urged employers to remember that workplace accidents can cripple staff members physically, mentally and financially.
Mrs Rewko is now seeking $268,820 in damages for “personal injuries sustained in the course of her employment with the defendant and occasioned by the negligence, breach of duty and/or breach of contract of the defendant”, according to a statement of claim seen by news.com.au.
Shine Lawyers’ senior solicitor Luke Pearcy, who is representing Mrs Rewko, said the case was especially timely given October is National Work Safety Month.
“Placing an oven more than five feet (152cm) off the ground in a busy kitchen is an obvious problem — common sense would dictate that this is a dangerous location,” he told news.com.au.
“It causes a high degree of risk for any chef or kitchenhand, especially one like Katelyn who has to reach up above her eye level to remove all manner of dishes and desserts. As a result, she has obtained serious burns from scorching hot water.
“Not having a first-aid supply at hand has also meant her injuries were not treated in the most appropriate manner from the outset.”
He said the incident was an example to other employers of why they should act on solutions to obvious problems to keep their workers safe.
“Employers have a duty of care to keep their workers safe at all times,” Mr Pearcy said.
“This shouldn’t happen in any restaurant, let alone an up-market, well-known and popular venue such as Cha Cha Char.
“The incident has had serious repercussions for the rest of Katelyn’s working life. Her injuries have affected her confidence and ended a career which she loved and had spent four years of training for.”
Boutique Venues Events, which owns Cha Cha Char, declined to comment when contacted by news.com.au.