(NECN: Jack Thurston, Middlebury, Vt.) - Before beer is pourable, making it can be dangerous. Breweries are typically loud facilities with fast-moving manufacturing lines, pressurized tanks, wet floors, hot pipes, and high shelves stocked with materials. Those can combine into a recipe for workplace injuries.
"There are multitudes of hazards," said Scott Meyer of the Vt. Labor Dept., describing many breweries. "In a situation like this, when [employees] walk through the door and there's risk as soon as they open up the door, mitigating the risk is key."
But Thursday, Meyer named Otter Creek Brewing in Middlebury, Vt., which also produces the organic line Wolaver’s, and the brand Shed, among the safest breweries in the nation.
"What we want companies to be is proactive," he said.
The Vt. Labor Dept. administers a federal workplace safety program through OSHA called SHARP: the Safety & Health Achievement Recognition Program. Vt. workplace safety officials said there are only three craft beer-makers in the country now maintaining the stringent SHARP standards. Two of those are in Vermont; Otter Creek and its parent company, Bridgewater's Long Trail Brewing Company. The third is in Alaska, Meyer said.
One recent example of the potential danger that exists in beer-making was the April, 2012 death of an employee at the Redhook Ale Brewery in Portsmouth, N.H. Worker Ben Harris, 26, was killed when a keg he was cleaning exploded.
"It gets more of a glamorous appeal out in the public because it is beer, but there are a lot of moving pieces, said Otter Creek's brewmaster, Mike Gerhart, describing the complex and time-intensive job of craft brewing. “We want to make sure we make great beer, but our biggest priority is that everyone goes home at night."
A little over a year ago, Otter Creek also learned first-hand that beer-making can be a dangerous business. A fermentation tank ruptured in November, 2011, sending fluid gushing and damaging other equipment.
"Thankfully, no one was injured," said Otter Creek managing partner Dan Fulham.
Fulham said that incident inspired the company to spend millions on upgrades, and on hiring a safety manager. New policies include extra redundancies on checking tank pressure. Operators now take regular readings, and if they miss something, there are two mechanical fail-safes.
"There's a capital investment you have to make, but over the long term, world-class companies that invest in safety-- they have higher productivity, better efficiencies, and ultimately, it pays off in the bottom line," Fulham said.
Even Otter Creek's 20-person sales force, Gerhart and Fulham said, has pledged proper seat belt and cell phone use while driving. The Vt. Labor Dept. noted that change like that often starts with employees who feel ownership in company policy. Scott Meyer explained that's easiest to do in small businesses like the ones Vermont is known for.
"It's more of a family type of setting, compared to some of the bigger industries outside the state of Vermont," Meyer said.
Otter Creek Brewing is now also a setting that more clearly toasts safety.