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Brewery Safety: It’s Cool

When a homebrewer has aspirations of turning a hobby into a career one of the last things that probably comes to mind is safety. The closest thing they typically encounter that would be considered a safety issue is exploding bottles from over carbonation. I’m not saying that isn’t a real safety issue, because it is. I’ve had my own experiences with those. I still found broken glass, by stepping on them barefoot, even when I sold that house 6 years later. I’m just saying that homebrewers don’t really have a need for a real safety plan.

Safety is a very serious and very real concern working in a manufacturing brewery that is surrounded by things that can cause trips, slips, cuts, burns, poisonings and death. It wasn’t until I attended a seminar at the 2015 Craft Brewers Conference that I started to take safety seriously.

In the talk a number of operations managers—a position I held—from a number of much bigger breweries opened up the floor to questions. In pouring came a number of safety related questions. One after one operations managers from Three Floyds, Victory, Allagash and Cigar City provided basic procedures that any brewery, of any size, could easily implement. Safety glasses, rubber gloves when handling chemicals, proper footwear and much more easy, cheap procedures we’re listed off. I put my pen into overdrive on the conference provided notebook trying to keep up with these nuggets of information. I was convinced that I needed to create some sort of basic safety plan for our brewery and it needed to be done very soon.

Safety was always kind of glanced over in our brewery prior to this. We were aware of the plastic keg explosion at Red Hook in 2012 that killed one worker. We actually opened up shortly after that incident and were using plastic kegs. Within a couple years we had completely phased out plastic kegs and gone to stainless steel. So we told employees washing kegs not to hang around the keg washer when it was running. Outside of that it was just “Be careful with caustic and peracetic acid. Good luck.”

It was pretty common in those early days to see keg filling being done with flip flops on. I cringe at the thought of this today and wonder how no one ever crushed a toe from this practice. We actually required closed toe shoes well before this trip CBC. Despite the brewery employees being mandated to wear closed toe shoes our taproom still allowed the practice until one bartender dropped a full keg on her foot changing kegs in the taproom walk-in cooler. That was a fun trip to the urgent care.

At the same earlier mentioned seminar John Mallett of Bell’s Brewery had mentioned that the key to implementation of your safety plan is getting everyone on board. That meant that from the owners down to the bartenders had to follow safety protocol if they were to step foot into the brewery’s production spaces. I knew that this would be a tough task for the handful of employees we already had in the brewery who were not used to having to having safety glasses on let alone follow other procedures like lock out/tag out and confined spaces permits.

Most were receptive of the new safety manual at first but very quickly it became evident that they thought this was just a Band-Aid to appease the company’s insurance company and they could just stop without any sort of consequences in a couple weeks. When my constant badgering of cellarmen to put their safety glasses on instead of on the top of their heads didn’t dissipate I thought it would become clear that I meant business. When that didn’t work a fine system was brought into play to where offenders donated a dollar to a jar. This money was then donated to a charity at the end of the month. Complaints to upper management about this system put an end to it pretty quickly but I swore it was working.

Luckily shortly thereafter the company implemented a write up system with a 3 strike policy. It became clear to employees at this point that refusal to follow safety protocol would result in write ups and three would be a boot out the door. The last thing you want to explain to a future employer is that you were fired because you couldn’t wear your safety glasses in a manufacturing facility.

Along with the “simple” and “easy” implementation of a safety glasses in the brewery there were a number of other actions that were done quite regularly without a single thought of the danger this could cause. Hopping into a mash tun with motorized rakes requires a lock out/tag out of the power and a confined space permit to be filled out along with a spotter for the entrant. Leaning into a fermenter with a hose to spray off krausen is entering a confined space. “Where’s your permit?” I would ask.

Did you know that the water and solution of those eye wash stations with the big reservoir over them need to be changed periodically? Neither did I for the first 2 years of us being open.

Every injury, no matter how small, must be reported and recorded for OSHA purposes. If they ever walk in your door they are going to want to see your occupational injury log. One of our brewers had once sliced open a finger with a box cutter while cutting the plastic wrap off a pallet of grain. That was another trip to the urgent care that I went on. A few stitches were needed and that was that. No report of that done because I didn’t know at the time.

Plastic measuring cups were constantly being stored hanging on the spouts of our chemicals with no concern for whether it was used on the caustic or an acid. Oh yeah, bases and acids? They need to be stored away from one another.

I quickly and constantly taught myself that this brewery could be a death trap. In 2013 seven employees at a Modelo brewery in Mexico died of Co2 exposure while in a confined space that wasn’t properly purged first. Also in 2013 one employee at Stone Brewing in San Diego after being ejected from a forklift he wasn’t wearing a seat belt in and being crushed by the same forklift. Extremely sad situations and both were likely preventable.

I had to write up employees for not wearing a seat belt on our forklift before. They think I’m being a dick, even after telling them about the incident at Stone, but I certainly didn’t want any deaths at our brewery on my watch and neither should you.

Maybe you are now seeing that a brewery can be a dangerous environment to work it. It’s a fun one for sure, but one should never take the dangers that you can encounter for granted. So what can you, the small brewery, do to create an easy protocol for safety in your brewery? If you aren’t the owner of your brewery then this is something you are going to have to get them on board with. They are going to be the ones that will have to invest some money into it so they should know about where funds are going. But also take notice that I said HAVE to instead of NEED to. Safety is ridiculously important. And all it will take is one issue and one visit from OSHA to be in some deep shit. Pound that into them.

If you are the owner and operator of a brewery then let’s talk about the simple and easy stuff to start your safety protocol.

Safety Glasses and Goggles

This is the absolute easiest fucking thing that anyone could do. It is truly the least you can do. Buy a pack of these (the shatterproof ones) from your local, big box hardware shop or online if you want to save a few bucks. At the same time get some wipes for those things because they are going to get dirty.

Set up a little station for these glasses to live when not in use. It’s probably best to have this station somewhere near an entrance to the brewery. It is that way that the employees will have to walk by the glasses and pick them up.

If an employee wears glasses for vision they aren’t exempt from this practice. There are shatterproof regular glasses made and these might work but would depend on their coverage (do they come around the head and protect the eye from the side?) and whether the frames are shatterproof as well, not just the lenses. What options do you have?

You could also wear contact lenses and then wear the brewery issued safety glasses. I know not everyone’s eyes allow for wearing contacts but it’s an option.

But your best option is probably going to be that you can get prescription safety glasses. Yes those are a thing. If you intend on being a brewery worker for a number of years this is probably a good investment for yourself. They can range anywhere from $15 to $100 but most of them seem to be in the $25 to $40 range. That’s really not a lot of money. Hey, maybe even ask your boss if they will help you pay for them. I worked in a brewery that offered to pay a certain amount for boots for the employees.

Why are safety glasses so important? I have witnessed a the stainless steel end of a brewing hose smack an employee in the face and having his safety glasses on prevented a very bloody situation from happening. That’s just one reason why.

In the same boat as safety glasses are safety goggles. These should be used anytime an employee is handling chemicals at the very least. It is also highly recommended to have these on when dealing with hot water or hot wort as well. They have more coverage of your eyes than the glasses have so they take care of stuff that can come from the sides, below or above. If you get hot caustic splashed on your face—first, ouch and second, be more careful—and you have only safety glasses on that caustic that hit your forehead is now going to drip down into your eyes. Googles go right up to your skin and prevent that dripping down.

Heavy Duty Gloves

I’m sure any brewery concerned with sanitation already uses nitrile gloves by the case load. If you don’t please don’t tell me and just go order a bunch online right now. But simple, thin nitrile gloves do not protect you from chemical burns and heat.

Handling brewery hoses that have just had hot water running through them can be quite hot to the touch. You need a heavy duty pair of gloves (preferably rubber in make) to handle these. There are really cheap ones out there but they are usually of lower quality and can actually feel a good bit of heat through them after just a few seconds of handling a hot hose. Spend the extra few bucks on better quality ones.

Also when you are pouring out caustic to clean your tanks you should be using these same gloves. Chemical burns suck. Don’t believe me? Be my guest. Actually, no don’t. Do not just find out on that. Get some heavy duty gloves.

Lock Out/Tag Out (LOTO)

My first time reading about lock out/tag out seemed complex but it really isn’t at the it’s core. This is pretty much the act of making sure that a piece of equipment that is being worked on for maintenance or repair can not be powered on accidentally and cause harm to a person. The easiest action that can be taken for being LOTO compliant is unplugging the equipment that you are working on. No power means no turning on by accident. The plug should also be tagged as being unplugged for this work so that no one accidentally just plugs it back in without knowledge of the person doing the maintenance.

Not all pieces of equipment are as easy as unplugging them. A lot of modern brewhouses and other equipment have a power switch on them that is a big red knob inside of a yellow base. You’ll notice in that knob and in the yellow base a hole. When power is off they are at different sides but when turned off those holes align oh so nicely. This is to put a lock through, just like a padlock. This lock prevents anyone from turning the power back on while someone else may be working on the equipment. Major catastrophe averted. This lock should have a note on it as to why the power is off as well for any employee that is unaware of the work being done. Sure it takes a lot more effort to pry off a padlock and turn equipment back on without asking a question but dumber stuff has happened.

If your equipment is older and lacks this feature and an easy to access plug into power then it is your responsibility to find the proper way of cutting power to the piece of equipment and making sure that it stays off in the event that it needs to be worked on. One should never have to just assume. Cut the breaker that goes to that equipment. Talk to your electrician. Do something.

One time a fellow employee was working on our air compressor. He turned the power off but failed to unplug the compressor and also failed to inform anyone that he was working on it. When the person working on the keg washer told me that the washer was failing I went to look at things, I saw the air compressor was powered off and turned it back on. This resulted in grinding of metal parts and shrapnel shooting out the back of the compressor. No one was hurt luckily and needless to say the compressor was now completely dead. While no one did get hurt someone could have been severely hurt and it could have been avoided with the LOTO procedure.

Confined Spaces

Confined spaces are defined as any placed that has limited or restricted means for entry or exit and are not designed for continuous occupancy. In the brewery world this includes but is not limited to mash tuns, lauter tuns, kettles, whirlpools, hot & cold liquor tanks, silos, fermentors, brite tanks, conditioning tanks and uni-tanks.

While scary to think for any agoraphobic it is required to enter some of these vessels from time to time. Whether it be for cleaning or a screw coming off of the false bottom of your lauter tun it is sometimes unavoidable to go into a confined space. But when the time comes for some lucky soul to have to venture into one of these enclosures every precaution should be taken to account for the safety of this person. This is where confined space permits come into play.

The permit is essentially a check list of all precautions that go into declaring a space safe for a person to enter as well as rescue procedures in the case that an entry go awry and the entrant needs to be removed from the space right quick.

Go ahead and Google confined space permits. I’ll wait. They are pretty elaborate right? As they should be when a person’s life could be on the line. Is the space ventilated? How will there be lighting? What safety equipment is being used? Who’s the spotter? Never, ever take any of this stuff lightly as it could save someone’s life.

The Modelo accident I mentioned earlier was because the tank that was being worked on wasn’t clear of Co2 prior to entry. Some of those that died were people attempting to save those that had already passed out inside the tank. Co2 meters used to test the tank before entry could have potentially saved lives. There are cheap ones out there, at about $150. Get your brewery a few of them for spots where Co2 is in abundance (cellar, walk in cooler, canning lines, etc) and that employees can take with them to measure other areas.

Follow Your Protocol

As John Mallett had mentioned, for a safety protocol to work everyone needs to follow it, this includes your owners, managers, head brewers and all the way down to volunteers and bartenders. If anyone is let off lightly then those that need to follow it the most will see holes in your logic and won’t respect your rules.

Despite that one of my previous owners wanted me to put a safety protocol into place they regularly disregarded it. This set a bad example for everyone around. All it takes is the owner putting on one of those pairs of safety glasses when they cross over into the brewery to show everyone else that these rules are to be taken seriously. A cellarman who just cleans and fills kegs can look at the owner of the whole fucking place wearing safety glasses and go, “Oh shit, this is for real if they are doing it.”

And if you are the safety manager for your brewery and co-workers are not responding well to the newly implemented procedures don’t give up. Never give up when it comes to safety. Even if that employee is a complete pain in your ass you don’t want to see them die…I hope.

Stay on employees about following procedures. They will complain at times, for sure. But make it apparent that you will not let up. In the end if they don’t care about their own safety as much as you they can find work elsewhere.

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