Welder Mark Moynihan crawled down a narrow tube into a space the size of a car interior to seal the crack in the fermentation tank at Calhoun’s Bar-B-Q & Brewery in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The space was oversaturated with oxygen. He lit his torch, and a flash-fire erupted. His hair and clothing disintegrated instantly.
Moynihan, a contractor for the craft brewery, dragged himself up the tube and out of the vat while still on fire, suffering serious burns over much of his body. He died 75 days after the 2009 accident, just before his 40th birthday, said his widow, Kim Moynihan.
It was not an isolated incident.
From 2009 through last year, at least four people died in craft brewery accidents in the US, compared with two deaths at large breweries that make 10 times more beer, according to a Reuters analysis of federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data and local media reports.
There were also nearly four times as many safety violations at craft breweries in recent years than at large breweries. Brewery experts say the safety oversight at smaller companies is worse than official statistics might suggest because injuries, even severe ones, often go unreported.
“It was horrific,” Kim Moynihan said. “It was an accident, but it was an avoidable accident.”
She sued Copper Cellar, claiming the owner of the brewery and a small chain of Calhoun’s restaurants in the Knoxville area created a dangerous work environment, according to court documents. She settled for an undisclosed amount, but said she could not discuss the settlement further because of a nondisclosure agreement.
Nicholas Chase, a lawyer at Egerton, McAfee, Armistead & Davis representing Copper Cellar, said neither he nor his client could comment on the accident because the agreement might prohibit it. He said he was unable to immediately provide further details of the agreement.
The craft brewing industry has grown from a niche market 20 years ago into a US$10.2 billion business last year, according to the Boulder, Colorado-based Brewers Association, which represents 1,797 US craft and larger beer makers.
The association is not aware of safety issues unique to the craft brewing industry, its technical brewing projects coordinator Chris Swersey said in an e-mail.
Matt Stinchfield, a brewery safety consultant for insurance companies, said that as the industry scrambles to meet the exploding demand for craft beer, employee safety has sometimes been overlooked.
“You have a few eager entrepreneurial spirits, and they don’t come with an industrial safety background,” he said. “There is still some growing up to do.”
Brewers Association board member Gary Fish said craft brewers sometime struggled with safety, as many other small manufacturers do.
Haste causes accidents, and pressure to meet demand causes haste, said Fish, who is the founder and CEO of Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon.
“It’s a challenge everywhere,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is de-emphasizing safety.”
State inspectors and OSHA found 547 violations, including 250 serious ones, at craft breweries from 2003 through 2011, according to Reuters’ analysis of the data. Officials fined the small brewers an aggregate US$220,000 for violations ranging from failing to enclose sprockets and chains to not ensuring machinery was disabled when an employee was inside.