Confined Spaces in the Wine Industry: What You Need to Know

Published by Justin McCarter on Jan 4th 2012

The US wine making industry has grown tremendously over the past 20 years. Professionals and hobbyists alike ferment great quantities of pressed grapes to produce the ancient ambrosia. However, not all parts of the wine making process bring joy. There is a serious side to viticulture where cleaning equipment, tanks, vats and other confined spaces may hide potentially lethal dangers for those who press the noble grape. Wine Tank Confined spaces within the wine industry can relate to any areas, fully enclosed, partially enclosed or even open topped, which are not intended to be a normal, habitable workspace. These can include fermentation vats, bins, and even some barrels. Because of the nature of fermentation as well as chemicals used for cleaning equipment (such as Potassium Metabisulfite and others), there are opportunities for sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon dioxide (CO2), ethanol (EtOH) and even water vapor to create unsafe work atmospheres in these potentially dangerous areas where workers are required operate. For permit required confined spaces in tanks and vats, an airline respirator are sometimes the only appropriate respiratory device. In all sorts of confined spaces ventilation is critical, as are gas monitors that detect acid gas and other organic vapors. Respirators fitted with cartridges such as the 3M 6003m Organic Vapor/Acid Gas Cartridge or the Moldex 7600 Multi-Gas Vapor Smart Cartridge may be used in areas with lower levels of the gas. However many of these organic vapors can displace oxygen and that is something no human worker can do without. There is ample evidence to suggest that even well-trained personnel can drown or be asphyxiated when their work requires them to be exposed to the dangerous atmospheres created by wine making in a small or confined area. Wherever possible, tank work should be done without entering the tank or vat space. Long handled tools for shoveling and automated cleaning systems can keep wine makers away from potential danger. Entry into areas that may contain toxic environments must be made by people trained in confined space entry. Those workers must have the appropriate protective gear (PPE) including a gas monitor for testing the atmosphere, a means of safe entrance and egress of the space, and the ability to be retrieved by competent people outside the space if they are overcome while working. For all wine makers, the best line of defense against potential harm is knowledge of the dangers lurking in confined spaces. Training and written confined space programs are a must for a professional enterprise so these dangers are apparent to all workers. All areas that may contain dangerous atmospheres where a person might conceivably enter and become trapped should be labeled with warning signs and written permissions must be obtained each time workers want to enter those spaces. To paraphrase the famous California wine maker Paul Masson, "We will enter no confined space before it has been properly ventilated and checked for any and all atmospheric hazards." Or something like that.   Photo credit: Cornell Blog