Swapped like war stories over after-shift pints, the anecdotal horrors of close calls, injuries, and near-death experiences are not only badges that represent time spent on the brew deck and in the cellar. They are also cautionary tales—slips and falls; hot wort that fills boots, cooks feet, or scalds hands; eyes sprayed with caustic; de-glovings. Graphic photos of the aftermath and healing wounds are shared to Facebook groups and Reddit threads.
Yet there is still an attitude in some corners of the industry that accidents can’t happen or that experience trumps everyday dangers. There can be a stigma on the production floor that safety gear is for new hires, but those attitudes hold the industry back. People die brewing beer. It doesn’t happen every year, but it happens too often for the comfort of safety-minded industry leaders.
“Brewers are beverage manufacturers,” says Matt Stinchfield, safety ambassador for the Brewers Association. “They work in a manufacturing environment by definition.” However, not everyone comes to the industry with an industrial mindset. “Workers in every industry wear long pants—it comes with the territory. Some brewers are still wearing shorts,” he says, with some exasperation.
Given craft’s roots in hobby-brewing and small business, maybe the disconnect is understandable. “From homebrewers to people making career changes into craft brewing, a lot of people don’t realize they’re working in an industrial environment,” says Chuck Skypeck, the BA’s technical brewing projects manager. “It’s important to get people to start thinking about what that means.”
In fact, the brewery is a jungle of dangers for the worker. Everyone on the production floor must gird themselves for all manner of hazards, from those common to other manufacturers to those unique to beverage production.
The armor of the industry is the personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by workers, and it’s the last line of defense against the worst outcomes of accidents, missteps, and equipment malfunction.
Workers Need Workwear
With so many disparate tasks in the brewery, from hot side to cellar to cleaning, the particulars of protection for a worker can change throughout a shift. Safe workers start with what they wear to work. The topic of shorts in the brewery can get as heated as a Florida brewhouse in August, but despite their comfort and convenience, shorts are unprofessional attire. The most appropriate garments for the brewery cover the leg to the ankle, be they long pants, overalls, or coveralls.
Ideally, shirt sleeves also should be long for protection from splashes or scalding, yet easy to roll up when arms are less at risk. Lightweight, breathable materials from head to toe are prized in the hot and humid brewery, but don’t forget about everything that needs doing inside the cold room. That branded hoody might not be warm enough for a long day of shifting kegs or replacing draft lines in a frosty cooler.
Boots are another hot topic when the conversation turns to PPE. The Brewers Association recommendations are straightforward: waterproof, chemical resistant, slip resistant, and steel-toed. Yet with more than 100,000 people working in craft brewing, that’s more than 200,000 different feet, each with unique requirements for a boot. From the $20 rubber boots found in almost every cellar to the $200 leather Blundstones preferred among workers in the wine industry, there’s a style and fit that works in every situation.
A two-pairs approach is often preferred—perhaps a waterproof and economical pair such as those from Dunlop, for when the cellar calls or caustic chemicals come out; then a more comfortable, hard-wearing leather pair for drier tasks and brew days. Among brewers, there are fans of every brand of work boots from Red Wing to Wolverine, but Xtratuf is vocally espoused on social media.
Note: Whatever boots are worn, the pants go on the outside. Tucking the cuff into the boot will only funnel any liquids that hit the leg into the boot—not pretty, when that liquid is 212°F (100°C).
Different types of gloves find uses across the brewery. Disposable nitrile gloves or fabric work gloves are sometimes all that’s necessary for the task at hand. However, one of the most common hazards in the brewery—the daily use of caustic chemicals for cleaning—requires more protection. Dispensing and handling these chemicals requires heavy, molded synthetic gloves that are resistant to the chemical. The type of gloves required for different chemicals is illustrated on each chemical’s material safety data sheet (MSDS). These technical documents provide details on dangers, handling, and disposal of chemical compounds; Section 8 of the MSDS covers which PPE is required.
Protecting the head is especially important, but hard hats aren’t common in modern breweries—at least not at craft’s scale. (Incidentally, as with any historic brewing memorabilia, there is a lively market for the hard hats worn at the most industrial breweries of the 20th century.) The modern bump cap is lighter and more comfortable—this plastic-and-foam insert for baseball caps or beanies protects against collisions with those valves, pipes, and platforms that often seem invisible until you walk or stand right into one.
As an inveterate noggin-knocker myself, let me tell you: Some people are just predisposed to hitting our heads on things that are right in front of our faces, and we should wear bump caps to work.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Breathe No Evil
Of all the hazards in the brewery, dangers posed to the lungs are uncommon and situational. Respirators or dust masks are largely confined to milling grain. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the face of government regulations in the workplace, and there are specific regulations and guidance for the use of respirators in the workplace.
Of course, the industry’s relationship with masks changed markedly in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic made PPE a common concern. Worn for whole shifts in every corner of the brewery and tasting rooms, masks were standard-issue, be they cloth, disposable, or medical-grade N95 filters. This shift underscores the intersection of safety in the brewery and government regulations, as states and counties mandated certain measures in the workplace.
Ear protection is likewise situational and specific in the brewery. Brewing and fermentation are relatively quiet processes, but the clatter and churn of a bottling line can, at best, be cacophonous. Canning lines are not much better, but perhaps the loudest noise among the brewery’s din is the fierce slamming of a centrifuge ejecting solids. Workers on the packaging line or operating the centrifuge should wear ear protection, be it common disposable ear plugs or over-the-ear muffs—but most tasks in the brewery don’t call for it.
While ear protection prevents hearing damage, it also muffles the environment around the wearer, which can cause problems in a brewery setting. After all, the forklift makes that telltale beep precisely to get the attention of anyone nearby. It’s also more difficult to communicate with coworkers when using ear protection. Notably, the same thing happens when brewers wear earbuds or blast music over the sound system: It can make dangerous situations more so. This is also why ear protection is often brightly colored; it signals that the wearer currently has impaired hearing.
Safety glasses are ubiquitous at breweries, and they are the last layer between the cornea and the pointy sticks, protruding pipes, and all manner of liquids that drip, spray, and splash throughout the brewery. Sometimes—such as when working with corrosives that can splash and splatter—not even wraparound safety goggles are enough protection; an added face shield is prudent. A chemical-resistant apron is another good item in these situations.
At the Brewers Association, both Stinchfield and Skypeck say that compliance on the production floor should be higher. They cite two factors that most influence the use of protective eyewear in the brewery.
The first is comfort. A worker is more likely to use safety glasses that they forget are on their face than they are a pair that pinches the temples and fogs easily. For brewers, finding a model of safety glasses that stay on their face could mean keeping their eyesight.
The second factor, more influential than comfort, is company culture. It isn’t enough to de-stigmatize wearing PPE; the flouting of PPE should invite ignominy. Brewers are great at busting each other’s chops, and those who value a strong safety culture don’t miss a chance to comment on common, minor infractions of standard operating procedures (SOPs).
Ideally, when to use glasses, when to use goggles, and when to don a face shield isn’t up to the individual. These details—as with respirator use and when to employ hearing protection—should be spelled out by brewery leadership when writing the SOPs for various processes.
“It isn’t enough to know how to do something,” Skypeck says. “A worker needs to know how to do something safely.
Last Line of Defense
If PPE prevents a worker from being injured, then something has already gone wrong in the brewery. Safety is about harm-reduction. As Skypeck says: “there are better ways than PPE to protect workers.”
PPE is not just the last line of defense; it’s the fifth, the final, and the least effective layer in the widely embraced Hierarchy of Hazard Controls, which makes up the core of industrial-safety planning.
The first and most effective method of reducing hazards in the industrial setting is elimination—the removal of the hazard from the environment. The substitution of a hazard for something less hazardous is the second-most effective method of control, followed by engineering controls—separating the hazards for the workers—then administrative controls, which are changes in process and how people work.
Every brewery is different, and each has a unique set of hazards and constraints. To reduce the dangers, brewery leadership must perform a hazard assessment. The BA and the Master Brewers Association of the Americas (MBAA) both offer detailed guidance for conducting a hazard assessment. The idea is simple: Walk through each task that’s performed in the brewery, from receiving raw materials to shipping finished product, imagine what could possibly go wrong, and consider how to use the Hierarchy of Controls to mitigate the dangers identified. This process is the cornerstone of any robust safety culture, and it’s an employer’s responsibility to provide a safe workplace.
That responsibility is the first part of OSHA’s General Duty Clause, codified in the 1970s to require employers to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm” to employees. Those employees also are beholden to the Clause and must comply with all safety regulations.
Without performing a rigorous hazard assessment—and producing documentation of the identified hazards—a brewery risks a run-in with OSHA or the courts. Worse, employees may be in danger from unidentified hazards.
Brewing is a complex task, and doing it all safely is even more complex. However, groups such as the BA and MBAA offer many resources for improving safety culture, and these are also available to nonmembers. The whole industry needs to work together to improve the safety in the workplace, and it doesn’t have to start from the top. The shift brewer or cellarperson can call attention to hazards or places where SOPs are breaking down. In an industry known for collaboration, the opportunities for peer-to-peer safety education are commonplace.
It shouldn’t take an injury, an accident, or even a near-miss to be the catalyst for working on the safety culture. Safety is a value every bit as important as quality and profitability.