Trouble brewing

Robin Eveleigh investigates accusations that craft brewers need to get serious about safety

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A glass of beer can be many things. It might comfort, refresh, or lubricate awkward situations. It can speak to the skill of its maker, the personality of its curator. It has the chameleon-like ability to pique a joyous moment or abet an episode of sullen escape.

In short, it’s easy to get romantic about the pint in your hand.

But that protein-heavy haze in your favourite IPA obscures a side to brewing which most of us - outside of the 900,000 or so employed in the UK’s beer and pubs sector - are unlikely to ever encounter. It’s a world of chemical burns, confined spaces, noxious fumes, broken bones and stitched wounds. In rare, tragic cases, these dangers prove fatal.

A video posted to Facebook and Twitter by Newport’s Tiny Rebel a few weeks back brought brewery safety sharply into focus.

The 21-second clip showed a huge mash tun - a vessel which in your typical production brewery contains thousands of litres of sugary grain porridge at 70-degrees celsius - spewing hot, steaming, sticky wort from a manway. Brewery workers wearing high viz but little in the way of protective clothing stood watching in seemingly perilous proximity. Tiny Rebel captioned the post: “When the mash tun pump fails and you don’t have a back-up." Context is of course everything, particularly on Twitter, but it certainly didn't look great.

Does craft brewing have a safety problem

Critics - including brewers who have been on the receiving end of scalding wort spills - responded with scorn, branding the stunt “moronic”, “terrifyingly irresponsible”, “complacent” and “absolutely reckless”.

Beyond the Twitter storm though, it begged the wider question: does craft brewing have a safety problem?

A glance through the history books courtesy of bloggers Boak and Bailey provides a macabre insight into some of the historical perils of #YeOldeBrewerylife.

Their ‘Brewhouse Death Trip’ post is a grim compilation of obituaries recounting tales of workers drowned in vats, crushed by machinery, and overcome with poisonous gases. There are explosions, electrocutions, deadly trap door falls and fatal scaldings.

In the famed London Beer Flood of 1814, two giant vats ruptured and sent a 15-foot tidal wave of porter raging through neighbouring streets, demolishing buildings and deluging cellars. Eight members of the public were killed and three workers were pulled, injured, from the remains of the Horse Shoe Brewery’s collapsed rear wall.

In the modern brewery, the dangers are no less real, nor any less deadly.

In 2006, technician Stewart Klincke died when he was overcome by carbon dioxide fumes at the Heineken-owned Scottish Courage brewery in Reading. The firm was later cleared of health and safety breaches.

At JW Lees’ Greengate Brewery in Manchester in 2014, a 30-year-old driver was killed falling into a delivery tanker. Two years later, twenty-two workers were hospitalised and contractor David Chandler died in an ammonia leak at Carlsberg’s Northamptonshire plant. An inquest into Mr Chandler’s death found the incident was “accidental but preventable” and a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) probe was ongoing as Ferment went to press.

It’s the rapid expansion in Britain’s craft sector which some old hands say gives cause for concern

But it’s the rapid expansion in Britain’s craft sector which some old hands say gives cause for concern. The craft beer boom has spawned almost a thousand new breweries in the last five years, and the Society of Independent Brewers’ (SIBA) latest annual report estimates indies will generate almost 900 new jobs this year alone. Inside of a decade, we’ve seen hobby brewers catapulted from cooking up 40-pint batches in garden sheds and back rooms of pubs to helming huge plants with scores of employees pushing out thousands of litres at a time.

We asked David Smith of York-based consultancy Brewing Services whether workplace smarts are keeping up with the galloping pace, and his response was unequivocal: health and safety has been left behind in the rush.

“The industry has a problem - and not only in health and safety,” he says. “It's in every aspect of craft brewing. We are dealing with enthusiastic amateurs who quite frankly shouldn't be anywhere near a mash tun, or anything else, because they've had absolutely zero training and have no idea about brewing health and safety.

“I've been working in microbrewing for thirty years. Things are worse now than they’ve ever been. There aren’t enough skills and qualifications to go around - it’s literally the blind leading the blind.”

In the UK, safe work practices are governed by the Health and Safety at Work Act. In simple terms, employers have to protect staff from work injury and illness. Failure to comply can lead to action by a local authority or the HSE, and workers can also sue under civil law.

A 2009 HSE study identified brewery work as the riskiest in the drinks sector, where the main perils include slips and trips, carrying heavy loads such as casks and sacks of grain, falls from height, and exposure to hot liquids or corrosive cleaning chemicals. Working in confined spaces - and yes, that includes that time-honoured collaboration brew photo opportunity of digging out the mash tun - and operating pressurised vessels also contribute to the risky business of brewing.

Employers have a legal obligation to report any serious accidents to the HSE, and data shows non-fatal injuries in beverage manufacture have been on the rise since 2015, from 253 per annum, to 264. The true figure is likely to be much higher, however, as the watchdog warns injuries are massively under-reported.

The HSE also carries out random spot checks - but counsels that its inspection programme prioritises hazardous industries, or sectors with a proven poor health and safety record – and its website details every action taken to enforce health and safety legislation. As recently as September, for example, Harvey’s brewery in Lewes, East Sussex, was served an ‘improvement notice’ for defective guarding on machinery. In July, Brewdog was similarly censured for charging hydrogen-releasing batteries close to ignition sources. And in 2017, Buxton was slapped with an ‘immediate prohibition notice’ after inspectors discovered brewery workers risked a dangerous tumble into the mash tun.

Safety breaches carry a maximum penalty of two years in prison or an unlimited fine

In extreme cases, the HSE will prosecute, and in the Crown Court safety breaches carry a maximum penalty of two years in prison or an unlimited fine. Shepherd Neame was fined £10k in 2015 after a worker lost a finger. The same year, Herefordshire’s Wye Valley had to forfeit £20k after an employee suffered a broken foot while cleaning a mash tun.

Even so, Kevin Mutch, another industry consultant who has helped school students at Nottingham University’s International Centre for Brewing Science in all matters health and safety, fears the trade is “basically unregulated.”

“I must have had contact with around 200 small breweries, and the HSE has never been near any of them,” he says.

“We’ve seen lots of small operations started up by home brewers making a business out of their hobby. Competition is fierce at the moment, and health and safety is the last thing on their minds - they just plough on, thinking they’ll get away with it. I'm all for their enthusiasm but the bottom line is, you have to produce your product safely.”

Trawling through hundreds of comments about mishaps on a popular Facebook group for beer professionals, Ferment picked up on sorry stories of brewday accidents ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous - from caustic soda chemical burns to tools thrown in a tantrum and ricocheting off the floor to hit their user in the face.

"It came down on top of me and I had to dive off the ladder."

Oliver Parsons, head brewer at Sussex-based Arundel, was hospitalised with second-degree burns in the first month of his professional career, and admits he came to the job after home brewing and just a week’s work experience.

Three weeks in to his new role, Oliver tossed a dose of Profloc - an additive which helps clarify beer - into a vessel of boiling wort. It belched back a plume of scalding foam.

“It came down on top of me and I had to dive off the ladder, seven feet to the floor, and roll away,” he recalls. “I was quite lucky really. We had procedures in place - they got my T-shirt off and got me under the hose. The incident was logged in our accident book. We looked at what caused it and took measures to prevent it happening again. You’ve got to learn from your mistakes.”

Oliver was indeed lucky. In the States, brewer Kerry Thomas - formerly of Idaho’s Edge Brewing - suffered a similar accident while adding hops to a boiling kettle. She suffered 30% burns and spent the next six months in rehab.

SIBA has an eye on workplace health and safety, and its H&S checklist - which used to cost members £50 - was recently made free to download from the site’s ‘toolbox’ section. Additionally, for £300 a year, brewer members can enrol in SIBA’s Food Safety and Quality (FSQ) scheme, which involves a basic health and safety audit.

“The vast majority are doing the things they need to be doing,” says SIBA chief exec James Calder. “Safety is an obvious issue. People shouldn't learn it by accident, they should learn safety as a priority.”

But with only 260 out of SIBA’s 750 brewery members signed up to FSQ, Kevin Mutch – who has personally carried out over a hundred FSQ audits - wonders if enough is being done.

“We have a duty of care to each other to make things as safe as possible,” he says. “We need a minimum standard of auditable training - and I'm talking all things legislative, not just health and safety.”

Tiny Rebel’s video clip – which it's since deleted – was met with such ire not only because it looked downright dangerous, but also because the decision to film this moment of seeming recklessness for public consumption does the reputation of the entire sector no favours.

“Craft brewing needs to realise that, to go forward, it has to be more professional, in every aspect of what it does,” concludes David Smith. “The industry has got to grow up - we've had the fun, now let's get down to the hard work of what brewing is really about.”

Tiny Rebel was approached for comment on this story.

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