While owning a distillery can be a rewarding and profitable undertaking, it’s not without risk. The process of making hard alcohol like whisky, gin and rum is not easy and often involves large, potentially dangerous equipment. What’s more, those that manufacture alcohol often have to deal with dangerous fumes and other harmful factors.

To protect their business, employees and customers, distillery owners must take a proactive approach to identify and mitigate the unique exposures that affect their operations.

Carbon Dioxide

In order to create alcohol, carbohydrates like starch and sugar must be converted through fermentation. During this process, yeast eats carbohydrates and creates carbon dioxide—an odourless, colourless and toxic gas.

The following is a breakdown of how different concentrations of carbon dioxide can impact the health of your employees:

  • 1,000 parts per million (ppm) – Prolonged exposure can affect concentration.
  • 10,000 ppm – Employees’ rate of breathing increases.
  • 30,000 ppm – Employees will begin breathing at twice the normal rate and may experience dizziness, a faster heart rate, headaches or hearing impairment.
  • 40,000-50,000 ppm – Employees’ breathing increases four times the normal rate, and they will experience signs of poisoning after only 30 minutes of exposure.
  • 50,000-100,000 ppm – Employees will quickly begin to feel tired and will experience laboured breathing, headaches, tinnitus (a ringing in the ears) and impaired vision. After a few minutes, they will likely lose consciousness.
  • 100,000-1,000,000 ppm – Employees will lose consciousness quickly. At this concentration, asphyxiation and death may occur.

Your workers could be exposed to carbon dioxide through inhalation. Thankfully, you can minimise these hazards by properly venting your fermentation area. Because carbon dioxide is heavier than air, ensure that you vent the lower levels of your work areas.

If your distillery uses a converted chest freezer as a fermentation chamber, it should be noted that carbon dioxide can collect at the bottom of the cabinet. To address this, periodically prop the lid up and use a fan to introduce fresh air.

Intoxication

Distilleries can be a fun work environment, especially if you or your staff members are passionate about creating alcohol. This environment can sometimes create a loose work atmosphere where staff members are allowed to drink on the job.

This is ill-advised, as alcohol can affect an individual’s perception and reaction time. What’s more, alcohol can negatively impact a worker’s judgement, potentially leading to dangerous mistakes or accidents.

And, when you’re working with large, expensive equipment, mishaps can be costly or even fatal. Avoid adding unnecessary hazards by banning alcohol consumption during work hours.

Fires and Explosions

Ethanol vapour is highly flammable and is one of the main fire and explosion hazards at distilleries. Ethanol can be released from leaks in tanks, casks, transfer pumps, pipes and flexible hoses.

Common ignition hazards to control can include the following:

  • Open flames
  • Torch cutting and welding operations
  • Sparks (static, electrical and mechanical)
  • Hot surfaces
  • Heat from friction
  • Radiant heat

In addition to being mindful of ignition sources, you can protect your distillery by keeping a dry powder or carbon dioxide fire extinguisher readily available. Ensure that any sprinkler systems you have meet industry and regulatory standards.

You should also provide adequate ventilation in the distillery and ban smoking and e-cigarettes around the work area. Be sure to keep heaters and natural gas appliances at least 3 metres away from distilling areas.

It should be noted that dust formed from processing grain and chemical spills can also cause fires or explosions. As such, it’s important to practise good housekeeping to avoid the accumulation of combustible debris or liquids.

Physical Injury and Other Employee Hazards

A distillery can be an unsafe environment for your workers if you fail to take the proper precautions. There are countless risks you will need to account for, including the following:

  • Chemical hazards. A variety of harmful chemical and cleaning products can be found in distilleries. To protect workers, it’s important to require personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves, steel-cap boots and liquid-proof aprons. Be sure to clean up any chemical spills immediately.
  • Because distilleries require workers to handle large amounts of liquids around powered equipment, electrocution hazards are common. To maintain a safe working environment, it’s important to never run power cables through pools of liquid. Whenever possible, avoid using extension cables, power boards or equipment with damaged plugs, sockets or cables. For added safety, ground equipment and use a residual current device (RCD) or residual current circuit breaker (RCCB). These tools automatically shut off power whenever they discover that a current is flowing along an unintended path, including through water or a person.
  • Injuries caused by heavy lifting. Working at a distillery requires employees to lift and move heavy kegs and other items throughout the day. This can cause repetitive strain and other injuries if workers aren’t trained to do the following:
  • Bend the knees, keep their back straight and lift with their legs.
  • Be aware of the weight of objects and don’t overexert themselves.
  • Practise team lifting or use back braces to assist with moving heavy loads.
  • Physical hazards. There are many dangerous items at a distillery that could harm your workers. You should ensure the work area is free of trip and slip hazards. In addition, noise from equipment, high-pressure tools, boiling liquids, hot surfaces and confined spaces pose a serious threat and will need to be addressed. Consider conducting safety assessments on a regular basis and address hazards as they arise.

Above all, stills should never be left unattended, and employers should set clear policies and procedures related to workplace safety.

Protect Your Investment

Owning a distillery can be a challenging, yet rewarding, experience. Taking into account the above safety tips will help ensure that the investments you have put into your business are not wasted following an injury or other mishap.

For additional protection, consider speaking to your Kennett Insurance Brokers broker about your insurance options. He or she will be able to discuss potential policies to address common distillery risks.

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