Let’s be real, safety isn’t the sexiest part of the beer world. There’s no Festival of Safely Brewed Beers or World Safety Cup awards ceremony, and for good reason. Yet safety is the single most important effort made in breweries every day, so here’s a little window into that seldom-seen world.
Read the beer news and you’ll notice some patterns. There’s a microbrewery doubling capacity. Here’s a nano releasing bottles. Every regional brewery is opening up an East Coast shop. With all this expansion, there are more people than ever working in the industry who don’t have experience in manufacturing plants. With all those green employees, there’s a heightened danger of someone getting hurt.
While breweries are businesses that have to turn a profit, there’s absolutely no justification for the loss of life or limb to save a few bucks, grow faster, make your job easier, or even to make better beer. Making great beer will keep the customers coming back, keep the lights on, and pay the employees, but a single accident could cost all of that–and much more. Because the costs are so high, it is a brewery’s first obligation to protect its employees, contractors, and customers from physical harm. Large breweries have had fully staffed and compliant safety programs in place for years, while small start-ups often don’t have the time or resources to spare to make their operations as safe as they could be.
Despite all the efforts to the contrary, accidents happen. Media reports alone tell us that two employees of American breweries have died on the job in the last two years and seven workers died in a single incident in Mexico last April. This is no exposé, but a primer on some of the common dangers you find in breweries large and small. The common thread is the release of stored energy–through heat, electric current, mechanical movement, falling from height, chemical reaction, pressurized gas, combustion, rupture, and so on.
At any given time, we have about a thousand gallons of water in the brewery at one-hundred and ninety degrees. When we’re brewing, there’s about five hundred gallons of boiling wort. Because of the sugar content, that stuff will burn you worse than water. We also have an industrial steam boiler that supplies all the heat to our brewhouse. The risk of a failed fitting or human error leading to serious burns is no joke.
Our stainless steel fermenters and brite tanks are rated for pressurization up to fifteen pounds per square inch. We routinely pressurize them with carbon dioxide, often while working on several tasks at once. A careless or untrained worker may set the gas regulator too high to move it along more quickly. Forget about that for a few hours, and with the bad luck of a safety relief failure, you’ve got a potential tank rupture. That’s one thousand gallons of beer and nine hundred pounds of stainless steel blowing apart. Bad news.
Our keg washer uses compressed air to evacuate any beer left inside “the dirties.” We regulate that pressure, but if we were to set it too high or if it failed, we could exceed the maximum working pressure for the kegs, possibly leading to an explosion. We don’t clean plastic kegs, but the Brewers Association has been collecting reports of plastic keg explosions around the industry since a tragic accident killed an American brewery employee in 2012.
We have giant vats of caustic and acid stored in our chemical room. They are equipped with locking valves and containment bases, but spilling a few hundred gallons of these powerful chemicals would make for a dangerous cleanup. The pH of these chemicals is on par with drain cleaner and the acid that digests food in your stomach. In solution, if you get a light spray on your skin and don’t notice at first, you sure will later when a sunburn-like sensation directs your eyes to a newly teeming patch of irritated skin. Undiluted skin contact–no bueno.
Brewery equipment requires high voltage and lots of current to operate. We’re pushing over a ton of wet grain around in our mash tun, operating powerful pumps, running an electric-powered mill and auger, charging a forklift, regulating our boiler, and chilling glycol down below freezing. With most of these operations, there’s a lot of water in close proximity to active electrical circuits and outlets. We build everything out to code and inspect and protect all of our connections, but the risk of serious electrical shock in a brewery is always a frayed wire away.
Fucking terrifying. When Outkast hits the speaker cone, Lou undergoes a werewolf-like transformation, starts speaking in Germanic tongues, and tears his taproom colleagues apart, limb by limb. (Ed. note: Now hiring! Wages great, working conditions terrifying.)
Our thirty-BBL fermenters aren’t nearly as tall as the eight-hundred-BBL behemoths at some of America’s largest craft breweries, but they’re still high enough for a deadly fall when we’re dry hopping or fining a batch of beer. The one-ton-pallets of grain we stack on eight-feet high racks are also serious fall hazards. So are the loads of full kegs we cart around the brewery on a forklift. Hell, even two-high kegs in our cooler are dangerous to lift down.
Your lungs work just fine when the concentration of oxygen in the air is between nineteen and a half percent and twenty-three and a half percent. Much higher or a little lower, and you start to see serious problems. We also have to watch out for carbon monoxide levels because of our steam boiler and carbon dioxide levels because of fermentation, our taproom draft system, and bulk tanks. Worst-case scenario here is mixing acid and bleach, which would trigger the production of deadly chlorine gas and a sure-thing Hazmat response. The release of toxic gas killed a team of seven people working inside a tank at a Mexican brewery last year.
Collisions, pinch points, and entanglement are on our minds any time we work around moving parts, like the pistons, moving manifolds, and cappers on our bottling line, the belts on our air compressors, the rollers on our mill, the steel corkscrew inside our auger, the rakes inside our mash tun, the rocking dumpster we use for spent grain, and the biggest and heaviest machine in the building: the forklift. The other recent death of an American brewery employee happened while he was driving a forklift.
Like any industry that produces fine dust, we’re susceptible to explosions. Our mill crushes the husks of barley kernels so we can extract sugars in the mash, but it produces a lot of grain dust as a byproduct. If we allowed that dust to collect beyond permissible thresholds, a spark or flame could ignite an explosion. Because grain dust particles are so fine, they have a much greater surface area than typical combustibles. Because the power of an explosion is geometrically related to the surface area of the combustible, grain dust explosions are extraordinarily devastating. That’s why OSHA inspectors have been bringing binoculars into facilities to check for grain dust accumulation in building rafters.
With all the factors that go into your decision to purchase a particular beer or not, I put this challenge out to you, the beer drinker: make yourself knowledgeable about how well the breweries you support care for the safety and well-being of their people. If there’s more to your decision than how the beer looks, smells, tastes, and feels, it should be worth your time to understand how these companies treat the workers that make their profits. I understand that for some people it’s really just about what’s in the bottle. I won’t get up on a soapbox about that right now, but I do know that, for a lot of people, it really matters who owns the company, how “overrated” or “underrated” a brewery is (whatever that means), how adventurous it is, who a brewery partners with and so on. I would argue that a brewery’s safety culture trumps any of those considerations. Maybe that doesn’t mean much to you from the outside, but from someone who puts on impermeable gloves, safety goggles, and steel-toe rubber boots everyday, it’s my health and well-being, my means of being able to support myself, and my peace of mind knowing that I won’t be put into unnecessary danger. It’s everything.
So ask, “What do you guys do for safety around here?” If you get a befuddled response, it’s probably not much. If you hear groans about safety meetings, there’s at least something going on. If you get a ten-minute rundown of the dangers around the building and the programs in place to prevent them from causing harm, that’s the good stuff. Support those guys.
This is Sob Stories. Sometimes we take you on terrifying and bizarre journeys to challenge you as a beer drinker, as a consumer, and as an incredibly well-organized unit of organic matter that happens to consciously think and make decisions about your existence. Gnarly.
I hope you’ve corrected the location of the tall gas cylinders… That chain is useless
How long until one of those gas cylinders falls and the top breaks off shooting across the floor? Hopefully it will only fall on someone’s foot and not kill people or shatter legs.
I would like to confirm that the chain used to secure the gas cylinders needs to be raised and tightened. The way the chain hangs in the picture makes it more likely that the valve assembly would be sheered from the tank than if the tank tipped with no chain in place at all.
Yeah I have to agree with Steve.. at the very least, secure a second chain across the top half of the larger cylinders. Ideally, I would put them in the most isolated place possible with good ventilation, limited heat, and no spark sources. The last thing you want is a gas cylinder rocket inside a brewery