Keeping Brewing Safe

Feature by | May 2013 | Issue #76

Illustration by Thom Glick

In the fall of 1814, several wooden vats ruptured at Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery in London, dumping more than 10,000 barrels of Porter into the brewhouse. The brick walls of the brewery collapsed and beer poured into the streets, knocking down nearby buildings, violently sweeping unsuspecting Londoners off their feet and burying many in rubble. In the end, the London Beer Flood killed nine people.

Brewing accidents are not a thing of the past. Last year, an employee named Ben Harris at Redhook Brewery’s New Hampshire facility was killed performing a routine task when the plastic keg he was pressurizing to clean out exploded. In early 2012, a fermentation tank exploded at Franconia Brewery in Texas, injuring two employees and spooking a large group on a tour of the brewery. Last fall, two Sam Adams workers in Pennsylvania were injured when a boiler malfunctioned. And in April, seven workers at the Grupo Modelo brewery in Mexico City were killed in “a confined area of a tank in which cleaning and maintenance work was being done,” according to a statement by Modelo spokesperson Jennifer Shelley; Mexican newspaper Milenio reported that the deaths were caused by inhaling toxic fumes.

“The fact that it’s dangerous is pretty much built into the job description,” says Alex Selby, a shift brewer at Mercury Brewing Company, a contract brewery in Ipswich, Mass. Selby is one of Mercury’s six shift brewers, who collectively work seven days a week brewing beers for Notch, Clown Shoes, Slumbrew and their in-house brand, Ipswich Ales.

Selby says people are always astounded when he tells them how the beer they’re drinking is made. “I have to jump into a mash tun of hot grain,” Selby says. “You’re handling chemicals and dealing with a boiling vat of wort all the time. Most people forget that.”

Safety is something he and his colleagues talk about every day. Most brewers know of someone who has been injured on the job or have plenty of harrowing stories about close calls. “Talk to any brewer or cellarman,” Selby says. “Unfortunately, they will have had chemical burns at some point, they’ve gotten beat up, or have had simple things happen like hurting their back from repeated lifting.”

The hazards in the brewhouse are many: There are grain mills with sharp whirling parts, mash and lauter tuns that can reach 170°F, kettles to boil the wort that frequently overflow, fermentor tanks that can be pressurized, secondary and conditioning tanks also under pressure, and bottling and kegging equipment, not to mention heavy ingredients, catwalks, ladders, forklifts, trucks, pallets of kegs and cases of beer. Each step in the brewing process—especially when brewing in large volumes—has the potential to be dangerous if employees aren’t keeping safety paramount.

“No one’s ever gotten laid for lifting a keg,” says Derek Osborne, director of brewing operations, R&D, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compliance and quality control at BJ’s Restaurants in Chandler, Ariz. He discourages brewery and bar employees from lifting kegs alone, especially in tight quarters like a cold room. He’s seen many people throw out their backs. “Back injuries are really hard to prevent. We see them pretty regularly.”

Illustration by Thom Glick

Illustration by Thom Glick

Doc, as he’s known, points out another more invisible danger: “The silent killer is carbon monoxide. Pinhole leaks can kill you,” he warns. “We have carbon monoxide detectors and a buddy system for people going into the cold room.” In 2009, a forklift operator at Flying Dog Brewery died from carbon monoxide poisoning while operating a forklift inside a cooler, according to the accident report.

Ladders and catwalks can be dangerous places in the brewhouse, too, Osborne says. The first time he fell, he was saved by a rockclimbing harness because he’d installed harnesses instead of ladders to climb to the top of the tanks to dry-hop. When asked about plastic kegs, Osborne said that he simply does not allow them to be used in the brewery.

Plastic kegs are rated well below stainless steel in terms of how much pressure they can hold. Traditional stainless steel kegs are rated up to 600 pounds per square-inch (psi), as opposed to plastic kegs, which typically cannot handle more than 90 psi. Some stainless steel kegs have burst disks, small notches cut into the bottom that will burst first to relieve pressure and keep the keg from exploding in a more dangerous way. Plastic kegs are generally single use and at $20, are a cheap alternative to $100 stainless steel kegs.

But the breweries that were using plastic kegs are phasing them out. Especially the plastic kegs that are intended for multiple use. That was the kind of keg that killed Ben Harris at Redhook Brewery.

John Mallett, with Bell’s Brewery in Michigan, says he won’t use plastic kegs. As director of operations, Mallett holds a meeting every Friday. “Believe it or not, the first thing we talk about is safety,” he says. And addressing safety starts early. “With new employees, we train them. That means showing them where the bathroom is,” he says, “but also how we do things safely.” One of his safety pet peeves is box-cutter knives lying around; he’s seen a lot of slices and careless cuts. So if a Bell’s employee hasn’t closed the knife properly, Mallett will confiscate it.

Boil-overs are one of the most dangerous—and frequent—incidents a brewery can expect. But their risk can be minimized with proper equipment and safe practices. Kettles must have ample headspace to accomodate a frothy boil, so brewers should be careful overloading their kettles and pushing their volume limits. His old company, SAAZ, designed and installed over-boil sensors that cut off the kettle heat if an overboil is imminent. “At the main production brewery at Bell’s, the kettle doors lock automatically when heat is applied so it is not possible to open the manway during the boil,” Mallett adds.

Another innovation that is reducing injuries in breweries are Keg Clips, which package and transport unwieldy barrels that can go flying when secured with shrinkwrap, as is the common practice. Keg Clips are small clasps that link the barrel handles and can replace the yards of shrinkwrap and straps used to hold kegs together on pallets during transportation.

But moving the final product is a feat of its own and another potential place for injuries. In fact, plenty of brewery workers have been hurt lifting seemingly light objects in an incorrect manner. Safe practices and proper ergonomics are important in every position in the brewery.

“Burns, back injuries, chemical exposure, crushing injuries, hearing loss, slips, falls from heights, dust, electrical …” Teri Fahrendorf rattled off a list of the injuries possible in a brewhouse at a seminar on safety at the Craft Brewers Conference in March. Fahrendorf is a former brewmaster who now works with Country Malt Group, supplying brewers with malt and hops. She is also intimately familiar with brewing accidents. In 1989, she was scalded by boiling water spraying from a drain, only narrowly escaping more serious injury by scrambling under a railing and away from the 7-barrel kettle. Having endured skin graft surgery and a long recovery, she is now a vociferous advocate for safety in the brewery.

Fahrendorf stresses that brewery owners should not be reluctant to ask the federal OSHA consulting arm for help addressing conditions at their brewhouse. OSHA can send consultants for a brewery walkthrough to identify hazards and provide recommendations for a brewery’s staff. This doesn’t mean they’ll fine a brewery right then and there for any compliance issues, she says. “And ask your suppliers to do safety walkthroughs with you,” she suggests. “It’s a great way to get to know your suppliers.”

Whether it’s a nano or macrobrewery, Fahrendorf encourages breweries to make sure they keep their workplace safe and that they keep records of every incident in order to avoid similar ones in the future. Though it may sound costly to ensure every square-inch of a brewery is compliant with federal code, insurance companies can cover these costs. But most importantly, it will keep employees safe. Keep employees safe and morale will stay high, and with that, quality and production will soar.