Recent Injuries Remind Us That Craft Brewing is a Killer Job

Recent Injuries Remind Us That Craft Brewing is a Killer Job

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

I wrote recently that I had been reminded of the dangers involved in brewing. Those issues were on display this week when a contractor at Trillium Brewing was burned severely while doing some electrical work on a misbehaving piece of equipment. A boil over left him with severe degree burns and got him a medical ambulance ride from Canton to Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston. In this case, a boil over from a vat scalded him badly, but there are myriad other ways that brewers and people working in breweries can be injured.

The contractor wasn’t just a worker called in, he had been to the Canton, MA brewery of Trillium many times and is considered a friend of the brewery. This past Tuesday afternoon (June 5) several people reported seeing a hot liquid spill over and the gentlemen running around trying to get hi clothes off as portions of his skin sloughed. The 36 yr. old suffered significant burns on 50-60% of his body, but he is expected to make a full recovery. No word has come out as to whether skin grafts will be required.

OSHA has six months to complete an investigation of the incident, although they seem to think it will not take that long. Trillium has a reputation as a concerned business that continually looks for ways to improve safety in the brewery. This investigation will likely be more of an opportunity to learn and implement additional safety measures during this kind of repair rather than find fault.

image credit: Brewers Association

I am using the Trillium accident, along with a recent discussion I had with a brewery general manager wherein he pointed out how little the public understands about the issues with which brewers must deal, as the impetus for this article on injuries in commercial brewing. This will be in no way comprehensive, but may spark discussion between patrons and their brewers on the topic. In addition, please realize that many of these same problems also arise in home brewing, just on a smaller scale.

Number of Injuries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does keep numbers on the injuries and accidents that occur specifically in breweries. Of course, those numbers include mega breweries, and they do not parse numbers by size of brewery. There were 160 nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in breweries in 2011, and that number increased to 390 in 2015 (the highest number was 530 in 2014). This increase is certainly influenced by the large increase in the number of breweries over that period, but the 2014 peak shows that other issues are also involved.

The number of injuries and illnesses decreased to 330 in 2016, and may reflect the added importance that both the government and Brewers Association have been giving to the issues of brewery safety over the past few years. Each year’s Craft Brewers Conference, put on by the BA, includes a significant number of training and panel events on increasing and monitoring safety in the brewery and the taproom. And yet, horrible accidents do occur.

Between 2009 and 2012, there were four craft brewery workplace deaths (according to a Reuters report in 2013). These included Ben Harris, an employee of the Redhook Brewery in New Hampshire who was killed when a pressurized plastic keg exploded during a cleaning cycle, and Mark Moynihan of Calhoun’s BBQ & Brewery in Knoxville, TN, who died of burns after caused by lighting welding torch in a confined space oversaturated with oxygen while trying to seal a leak in a fermenter.

image credit: Brewers Association

After the recent Trillium incident, Katie Stinchon of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild told Brewbound that they had already put in for grant funds to create more safety and educational workshops for brewers. Add to this the BA’s free online safety training seminars, and one has to imagine that no matter how much training takes place, there are going to be accidents in brewing. The key is to reduce them to the greatest extent possible and to reduce the severity of those that do occur.

One of the many problems is that so many things can go wrong in a brewery, and so many processes are fraught with peril. In most industrial manufacturing jobs, a worker is doing a repetitive task and is keyed in to the safety issues of that process. But in brewing, a few people are doing many different jobs, each with its own dangers. And as brewery competition increases and brewers scramble to meet growing production schedules, it’s easy to let safety fall by the wayside if not given a priority.

Boil overs. From my limited experience, I see the major dangers as being heat, pressure, and chemicals. Heat comes in the form of hot liquids, and a boil over of wort is always a danger. Hot sugary liquids are sticky, and the burn just continues instead of running off. It can get trapped in your clothes and continue to burn, especially inside your boots, because the boil over usually flows from above and rains down over the brewer.

To prevent boil overs and the injuries from them, several products have evolved. Sensors can be purchased or engineered into tanks that will cut the heat when the liquid reaches a dangerous level, and chemicals like Fermcap can be used in the kettle as well to snuff the expansion of protein foam and expanding gasses during the boil.

image credit: Brewers Association

Locks can be purchased to secure the man ways in tanks so that they can’t be opened when hot liquids are inside. All are feasible; some work better for home brewers and some only matter with big, commercial systems. However, it’s harder to prevent things like spray from drains as you empty vessels, as exemplified by an incident recounted on beeradvocate.com, by Aleszu Bajak in 2013. Teri Fahrendorf was a brewmaster who was scalded from hot water spraying from a drain during the draining of a vat. Skin grafts were required in her case as well, and it could have been much worse if she hadn’t scrambled under a railing and away from the drain. No matter how you plan, some things just crop up out of nowhere.

Chemical Burns. It is often said that brewing is cleaning, with a little beer thrown in. The kettles, the fermenters, the brite tanks, all the lines between them, the lines to the taps – everything has to be cleaned to within an inch of its life or the beer will suffer, both in taste and in efficiency. But the chemicals used to clean the equipment are dangerous. Caustic is alkaline, and chemical burn skin in a matter of seconds, while another common cleaner is nitric acid in order to get rid of scale – need I say more? Yes, I guess I do. The temperature that these chemicals work best at varies, but it is never cold or room temperature. They are going to be hot, and they are going to spill.

Burns to the skin, the eyes, mouth, and nose are always possibilities when cleaning brewing equipment; just Google the pictures. And it can get worse. A patron in NJ was burned horrifically down the esophagus and stomach after ingesting beer that been run through draft lines which were improperly cleaned with caustic. See, you have a horse in this race as well. You can hardly name a brewer that hasn’t had a caustic or acid burn, but it hits home when you, the drinker, might be involved, huh?

Carbon Monoxide. One danger I was oblivious to was carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Producing heat can also produce significant levels of CO, so home brewers that work with propane in their garage should lift that door no matter what the temperature outside. And commercial breweries that use gas heat for the kettle should routinely have CO sensors checked and evaluated.

This isn’t a cute picture, brewers have to get in there on occasion for cleaning and maintenance. It is called a man way, after all. image credit: Equipped Brewer

But the cold room is another source of carbon monoxide. In larger breweries, some employees might be in the cold room several times during the day, for extended periods each time. At a small brewery that is changing kegs all the time, the cold room can also be a dangerous place because of carbon monoxide. The refrigerant gasses can leak CO, the powering gasses (propane) can produce CO. It’s a real threat and I had no idea it existed. There was a boy in Alaska that died from a CO leak from his family’s refrigerator last fall. Many breweries have instituted a buddy system for the cold room so that if an undetected leak is occurring, they can get an affected employee out in time.

Other Injury Sources. The danger due to positive pressure in tanks, seals, and kegs is always present and can’t be alleviated. Fermentation necessarily adds pressure to tanks through the production of CO2 by yeast, and washing kegs, pushing liquid through a system, keg, bottling, cleaning – these all involve a positive pressure at some or all points. It was a plastic keg (rated for only about 90 psi, compared to 600 psi for steel kegs) that killed Ben Harris a few years ago. Because of that, plastic kegs are being phased out; the cost savings (about 80%) from their one or two time use is offset by the increased danger.

But kegs can be their own danger. Moving them is a pain, but shifting during transport can lead to crushing injuries in a matter of moments. Many breweries use shrink wrap, but this is less than a guarantee of safety as many a brewery employee will tell you. Add in back injuries from lifting kegs, slipping on things left around the brew floor, tripping up or down stairs and falling off catwalks….I’m surprised anyone is willing to go into this business.

And yet they do. Ask Jason Cook at Teays River in Lafayette, he almost lost a pinky to a sharp edge on a vat a couple of weeks ago, but was back at the kettle brewing one handed just a day or two later. The beer from that brew day, saved by Josh Miller of Backstep, Corey Patterson of Brokerage, and Drew and Steve from Blichmann Engineering, was released the other day. It’s called Pinky and the Grain, once again proving that brewers can laugh in the face of danger. That’s fine, but please remind your local brewer to be careful, we can’t afford to have them hurt and not making our beer for us.


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