Brewery confined spaces

By December 10, 2014Confined Space, Safety

Brewery owners and workers. Please read this, even if you don’t want to learn about brewery confined spaces. Choice ignorance can kill someone and land someone in jail. “I knew we had confined spaces around here, but we never did anything about it.”

This post will not get in to the technical details of what is or is not a confined space. It will go in to practical ways to work with confined spaces.

Generally speaking, confined spaces are things like tanks, sumps, kettles, etc. Not mop closets, basements, or small rooms. A big difference is is it designed for human occupancy or not, also limited access and egress. If it has potential moving parts or engulfment, it can become a permit required confined space. Confined spaces do not need to be small; imagine a million gallon water tank that your city water dept. probably has scattered around. Those are confined spaces too.

In a brewery, just about all tanks are classified as confined spaces. Brew kettle, whirlpool, fermenters, bright tanks, wastewater vaults, even innocuous tanks such as cold or hot liquor tanks- they’re all confined spaces. That means at a minimum the air needs to be tested before some enters the tank (or even sticks their head in). In a brewery, oxygen deficiency is the main culprit. Carbon dioxide is heavier than air, it will sink and displace the atmospheric air- including oxygen. Depending how low the oxygen level is, 1-2 breaths is enough to cause someone to pass out. Now that person is unconscious in the bottom of a tank- 200 lbs of limp, unconscious person that you have to remove from the tank within a few seconds in order to prevent permanent brain damage.

Sound serious? It is. Please learn about confined spaces. Workshops are available in your area for free. OSHA and local or state affiliates offer these workshops. Someone at your brewery should become a confined space entry expert. The nice thing is in these workshops you can ask questions about specific examples, they will answer them or get an answer for you. These are classes, not inspections.

I will say most fermenters and brewing vessels do not have good solutions for confined space entry and retrieval mechanisms. Issues are scratches, horizontal tank openings, welding, sanitary requirments, and lack of a space to mount a hoist. So don’t go in there. If your brew kettle has burned on gunk at the end of every week, the problem is your CIP scheme. Time, temperature, or concentration of chemical- or it could be a spray ball issue. Do not get in there and scrub at the end of the week, it’s a serious accident waiting to happen. If your fermenter has persistent funk at the head space, again, its a spray ball or chemical time, temperature, or concentration issue.  If you do have to go in one of these tanks, at least ventilate with a proper blower.

Brewery wastewater tanks are probably the most hazardous tanks with respect to confined spaces. They will almost always be permit required confined spaces since potential for engulfment is almost always present. Luckily wastewater tanks don’t have sanitary concerns and are fairly easy to work with. Unlike most other tanks, wastewater tanks generally can’t be ‘locked out, tagged out’. Water flows downhill, even if you don’t want it to.

Equipment needed for safe confined space entry include: (follows links for examples with pictures and prices)

Of course it’s a bit more complicated than these pieces.  That’s why someone at your facility should take a class.  There are special circumstances like ladderless entry, high temperatures, high humidity, Yes it gets expensive, but confined space entry is a fact of life in a brewery and I think the $8,000 or so spent on this equipment is money well spent and is very inexpensive compared to some of the alternatives.

One thing I learned is alcohol fumes in the brewery can confuse the CO (carbon monoxide) sensor on the gas tester.  Especially near the packaging lines.  Just something to be aware of.

Confined space entry is a 3 person job. The entrant, the attendant, and the runner. The entrant is the person going in the tank. The attendant stays at the vessel opening 100% of the time the entrant is in the tank- they’re in constant visual or voice contact with the entrant the entire time. The runner is around to get tools, parts, and things like that.

The Brewers Association did a ‘power hour’ in fall 2014 on confined spaces in a brewery.  Here is the link. I will keep it here until they ask me to take it down.  My intent is not to steal or plagiarize, my intent is to share information about an important safety topic for all breweries.

Of course I missed some important topics in this post.  People write books about this stuff.  Feel free to ask questions or for more information.  Stay safe.

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