The Dangers of Gas Exposure in Wineries
Wineries face a unique set of challenges when it comes to safeguarding workers from the potential harm caused by hazardous gases. Gas exposure has the potential to occur at every stage of the wine production process, from the moment that the grapes arrive at the winery facility, through to the fermentation and bottling activities. Care must be taken at each stage to ensure that workers are not exposed to unnecessary risk. There are several specific environments within the winery facility that pose a risk of gas leakage and exposure, including fermentation rooms, pits, barrel cellars, sumps, storage tanks and bottling rooms. The main gas hazards that are found during the winemaking process are carbon dioxide, and oxygen displacement, but also hydrogen sulphide, sulphur dioxide, ethanol and carbon monoxide.
What are the Gas Hazards?
Hydrogen sulphide (H2S)
Hydrogen sulphide is a gas that can be present during the fermentation process. It is more commonly present in damp conditions. It hides dissolved in standing water. The most dangerous occurrence is when cleaning a confined space e.g., a tank where released gases cannot easily escape. The risks associated with hydrogen sulphide are that it is potentially hazardous to health, upsetting breathing patterns. Hydrogen sulphide poses severe respiratory risks, even at a relatively low concentration in the air. The gas is very easily and rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream through the lung tissue.
Sulphur Dioxide (SO2)
Sulphur Dioxide is a natural by-product of fermentation, but it is also commonly used as an additive in the process of organic wine making. Extra sulphur dioxide is added during the wine making process in order to prevent the growth of any undesirable yeast and microbes within the wine. Sulphur dioxide can be highly hazardous to health and is a highly toxic gas, causing numerous irritations in the body upon contact. Sulphur dioxide is a gas that can cause irritation to the airways, nose, and throat. Workers who are exposed to high levels of sulphur dioxide may experience vomiting, nausea, stomach cramps, and irritation or damage to the lungs and airways.
Ethanol is the main alcoholic product of organic wine fermentation. It helps to maintain the flavour of the wine and stabilizes the aging process. Ethanol is created during fermentation as the yeast converts sugar from the grapes. Wine typically contains somewhere between 7% and 15% ethanol, which gives the drink its alcohol by volume (ABV) percentage. The amount of ethanol actually produced depends on the sugar content of the grapes, the fermentation temperature, and the type of yeast that is used. Ethanol is a colourless and odourless liquid that gives off flammable and potentially hazardous fumes. The fumes given off by ethanol can irritate the airways and lungs if inhaled, with the possibility of intense coughing and choking.
Where are the dangers?
Open Fermentation Tanks
Any worker whose job involves carrying out operations over an open fermentation vessel or tank may be at a high risk of gas exposure, especially to carbon dioxide, or oxygen depletion. It has been shown that a worker who leans over the top of an open fermenter during full production, even though they may be as much as 10 feet off the ground, can potentially be exposed to 100% carbon dioxide. Therefore, particular care and attention to gas detection should be taken in these areas.
Exposure Due To Inadequate Ventilation
The fermentation process needs to take place in environments that are well ventilated to avoid the build-up of toxic and asphyxiant gases. Fermentation rooms, tank rooms, and cellars are all places that may pose a risk. During cold weather or night-time, increased levels of gas may build up as door and window vents may be shut.
Confined spaces such as pits and sumps are often problematic and well known for the potential build-up of hazardous gases. The definition of a confined space in a winery is one that contains, or may contain, a hazardous atmosphere, has the potential for engulfment by material, or an entrant to the environment may become trapped or asphyxiated.
As a winery grows and expands their operations, they may want to add new production units to meet the demand. However, it is important to remember that potential gas exposure risks differ between environments, e.g., the gas risk in a fermentation cellar is not the same as a barrel room. Therefore, different types of gas detectors may be needed in different areas.