Portsmouth, NH — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued citations to the owner of Redhook Ale Brewery in Portsmouth after a six-month investigation into the accidental death of an employee.
A 26-year-old brewery worker was fatally injured in April when a plastic beer keg he was cleaning with pressurized air exploded, striking him in the head and chest.
Craft Brew Alliance (CBA), the parent company of Redhook, now faces a combined $63,500 in fines from OSHA in connection with the accident, as well as workplace safety issues noted during subsequent inspections of Redhook’s brewery at Pease Tradeport. OSHA investigators have concluded the brewery’s keg washing equipment was operating at a pressure that exceeded the maximum threshold recommended by the manufacturer of the plastic keg when it exploded on the morning of April 24. CBA was issued three citations on Monday, following OSHA’s lengthy probe into the industrial accident.
The first citation was issued in connection with the keg accident, and it includes a pair of “serious” violations. A serious violation is one that “could cause an accident or illness that would most likely result in death or serious physical harm, unless the employer did not know or could not have known of the violation,” according to information available from OSHA. OSHA investigators allege Redhook employee Ben Harris, the Newington man killed in the accident, was exposed to hazards while he was “over pressurizing a plastic keg” with the keg washer. The violation carries a $7,000 penalty. The keg involved in the accident was not owned by Redhook or any other brewery under the CBA umbrella. It was delivered to Redhook in error as part of a delivery of empty keg returns. CBA has indicated that Harris was emptying the keg in order to stack it on a pallet, in a manner “substantially identical” to the process the brewery has used for years without incident. The manufacturer of the plastic keg that exploded is not identified in the OSHA citation, which indicates the keg had a maximum recommended pressure level of 60 pounds per square inch (psi). Redhook’s keg washing equipment was exceeding that level, according to the citation. It was also exceeding the maximum recommended pressure of Franke steel kegs, the citation states. Steel kegs are commonly rated at a maximum working pressure of 60 psi as well, industry expert Jeff Gunn told Foster’s last week during a discussion of keg design.
In a statement issued to Foster’s Tuesday evening, Craft Brew Alliance noted that it did not willfully violate workplace safety standards, and said the issues raised in the citations have already been addressed.
“The Portsmouth brewery uses compressed air to push waste beer out of returned kegs prior to washing and filling,” the statement reads. “The brewery believes it was operating safely because it has historically washed and filled only stainless steel beer kegs without incident. Redhook had never worked with plastic beer kegs at the time of the accident and has implemented policies to ensure that plastic kegs are not processed. Additionally, Redhook has installed pressure reducing and pressure relief devices to ensure that no incoming keg is exposed to pressure in excess of 60 psi.”
On Sunday, Foster’s reported that some microbrewery owners across the country are beginning to cast a wary eye toward plastic kegs in light of the tragedy at Redhook.
The Brewers Association, one of the largest trade groups representing microbrewers in the country, has also received numerous reports from members about failures of plastic kegs.
All of those reports involve products manufactured by a California company called Plastic Kegs America, Brewers Association director Paul Gatza said last week.
Since the accident at Redhook, Foster’s has learned of at least four breweries around the country where plastic kegs have exploded while being cleaned in a pressurized keg washer. In each instance, the breweries were using products manufactured by Plastic Kegs America.
In each instance, the kegs separated at the center seam, where two pieces of plastic that form the keg come together.
CBA has indicated that the April 24 explosion that killed Harris split the keg around the middle seam where the two halves were joined.
In August, an unidentified brewery also submitted a report to the Consumer Product Safety Commission detailing explosions of two plastic kegs, with photographic evidence. Both were manufactured by PKA, according to the report.
OSHA has not released its full report on the circumstances behind the Redhook accident, and the manufacturer of the plastic keg that exploded has not been identified publicly.
An OSHA spokeswoman indicated Tuesday that the report will not become a public record until Craft Brew Alliance has been allowed to view it.
Plastic Kegs America has declined to answer questions regarding the accident at Redhook until after the OSHA report is made public.
Among microbrewers, the Redhook incident has also raised questions regarding what manufacturing standards apply to pressure vessels that hold beer. The Brewers Association is polling keg manufacturers to learn more about the domestic and international standards they utilize.
After concluding its investigation at Redhook, OSHA also cited CBA for a variety of other issues not related to the keg washing equipment.
In one case, OSHA assessed CBA a $6,000 penalty for storing oxygen and acetylene in proximity to each other.
A second citation lists 14 more “serious” workplace safety violations. In one example, Redhook allegedly failed to properly anchor a pedestal grinder in the maintenance shop to a fixed location, landing a $3,000 fine.
In another instance, employees were welding stainless steel containing chromium and the employer did not determine their potential exposure to chromium, according to the citation.
Six of the violations were corrected while federal inspectors were still visiting Redhook, the citation indicates. Another eight were awaiting corrective action when the citations were issued on Oct. 22. They have deadlines for action ranging from Oct. 23 to Dec. 5.
A third citation includes six low-level violations, classified as “other than serious.” Infractions included in the category include things like, “Label on drum of iodine was not legible,” and “blue rubber insulating gloves used during electrical testing/troubleshooting inside panel boards (up to 240 volts) were not tested.” None carry a fine.