A Closer Look at Brewery Accidents After The Deadly Redhook Explosion

Karen Roe / Flickr

How common are serious accidents at breweries?

The accident that killed Redhook Brewery worker Benjamin Harris shocked New Englanders.  At seven o’clock on a Friday morning, the 26-year old newlywed and father-to-be was doing a routine task at the Portsmouth plant–pumping a plastic keg full of compressed air so that he could clean it.

The keg exploded, mortally wounding Harris in the chest and head.

Now OSHA‘s investigating.  The agency says it could be months before it knows what, exactly, is responsible for Benjamin Harris’ death, and if the incident was just a freak accident, or something the brewery could have prevented.  Foster’s Daily Democrat reports Vice President of Commercial Operations, Andy Thomas confirmed “the keg that ruptured and critically injured Harris was not owned or used by Redhook Brewery, nor was the keg owned by any other brewery operated by Craft Brew Alliance, Inc., Redhook’s owner and operator.”

The notion of breweries as potentially dangerous places to work isn’t necessarily something that would occur to many people outside the industry.  It can be easy to forget that breweries are manufacturers, and that the people working in these facilities are dealing with difficult and dangerous equipment.  With that in mind, we’ve been gathering information this week to try to put this accident into context.  How common are brewery accidents compared to other manufacturers?  And what are the most common types of hazards these workers face?  Paul Gatza is Director of the Boulder, Colorado-based Brewer’s Association.  The trade group represents craft breweries and small brewers.  He points to his own experience with brewing.

“There was three main areas that were definitely hazardous points,” Gatza says.  “And those areas were anywhere where there were temperatures elevated or anywhere where there’s tanks under pressure, or the combination of the two. The tanks were often cleaned with chemicals, so handling of chemicals was a third very important area for safety.”

“Extremely Rare”

Keeping in mind that details are scant at this point, Gatza says the kind of accident that killed Ben Harris is extremely rare in his experience.  “I’ve only heard of one other, in terms of a tank actually blowing.  I’ve heard other stories of tanks actually crumbling, where they actually shrink in size from the pressures pulling it together.  But this was a new one on me.”

OSHA’s online database of brewery accident investigations covers 2001-2009. The agency looked into 18 serious accidents or fatalities during that period.  The number goes down to 15 once you remove incidents where underlying health conditions caused or significantly added to the problem.  Most serious accidents and fatalities during that time also happened at large breweries, particularly Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors facilities.  Craft breweries–comparable to Redhook–only represent about a third of these accidents.  The OSHA database doesn’t lump all manufacturing accidents into one category, so it’s hard to compare raw investigation numbers of breweries and all other manufacturing.  But a quick search for “machinist” shows 366 OSHA investigations of deaths or catastrophic accidents over a 26 year period.  That’s an average of about 14 major OSHA investigations a year for machining accidents, compared to only about two a year for breweries.

But as with many factories, when things go wrong at breweries, they can go very wrong.  These reports detail horrific accidents: amputations, electrocutions, chemical exposure, and carbon monoxide poisoning.

But only one report cites a serious accident while a worker was doing what Benjamin Harris was doing the day he died–cleaning a keg.  According to OSHA, the non-fatal accident happened at Riverside Brewing Company in California back in 2004:

Matt Peoples / Flickr

OSHA's only documented one other recent incident even vaguely similar to what happened at Redhook

“On April 14, 2004, Employee #1, a brew master, was cleaning and sanitizing beer kegs with boiling hot water from a hose connected to a hot water tank. A beer keg had not been properly purged to relieve internal pressure, and when the brew master opened the gate valve, the beer keg, pressurized with 16 to 18 psi of carbon dioxide gas, caused boiling hot water in the tank to overflow from the top of the tank. Approximately five gallons of hot boiling water spilled onto Employee #1, causing second degree burns to his legs, back and arms. A coworker came to his aid and drove him to a nearby hospital for emergency medical care. He was treated for his burns and released. Three days later, Employee #1 went to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, where he was evaluated and admitted to the Burn Ward with second and third degree thermal burns, and hospitalized for ten days.”

Manufacturing Injuries versus Brewery Injuries

To put these accidents into context, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has been keeping track reported injuries (not just serious and fatal) by industry.  The BLS provided StateImpact with injury data broken down per 100 full-time (equivalent) workers from 2003-2010.  The chart below shows manufacturing as a whole tends to report more injuries than brewery work.  And brewery work tends to have a slightly higher injury rate than all industries combined.  The outliers seem to be 2005 and 2006, when brewery injuries at first declined, and then rapidly spiked the following year.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics


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