Accounts of gruesome agricultural accidents usually feature inherently unsafe equipment, recklessly sloppy work practices, usually driven by haste, or some of each. Looking over cases of fatalities in the avocado groves, for example, I came across the story of a poor fool who tried to use his foot to unclog a wood chipper and one of a picker who was electrocuted by his ladder when he inadvertently brushed it against a 7,500-volt overhead power line. Joel Salazar, perhaps California’s premier water Nazi, managed not to kill any of the fourteen men he deployed to plant date palms in the Imperial Valley on a 114-degree day with less than a gallon of drinking water for the lot of them, but at least his heart was in the wrong place. It’s a good rule of thumb that any time some farm hand loses his actual hand to a combine, it was because he was behind on the harvest and hurrying to unclog some mechanism with lots of sharps and gears, reaching blindly into crevices where his extremities did not belong. Not uncommonly, a farmer fatally gases himself in the course of trying to clean out a manure tank, the problem partly having to do with the tank but also having to do with the farmer’s venturing into the deep end of the tank without respiratory protection instead of methodically hosing the thing out from the outside like a sane person. Grain elevators are inherently dangerous on account of their containing way much grain in big-ass piles, piles that are hopefully stable but likely enough metastable, supported by critical structural elements that are ostensibly engineered to withstand Wow Much Wheat but maybe aren’t good for the job, and bathed in an ambient miasma of floury air that is prone to explode with little provocation. If grain per se were the safety hazard, you’d have to take precautions against burial or immolation in the flour bin in your pantry, but you don’t. The worry doesn’t start in earnest until it’s present by the train load in walk-in silos.
Let’s callously assume, however, that since the crops in these scenarios produce calorie-rich foodstuffs whose mass production feeds the world, a baseline level of preventable gruesome industrial accidents is an acceptable tradeoff for food security. Even under this rather repugnant assumption, there’s no way to justify a similar baseline of preventable workplace fatalities in the production of wine. And yet winery workers fall into the same traps. Literally. In one case in British Columbia, a winery owner broke through a tank hatch that he was trying to unjam and fell into a 500-gallon fermenter. A friend tried to pull him out from above, then jumped into the tank and tried to push him out from below. Both men died from carbon dioxide asphyxiation in the tank. Carbon dioxide asphyxiation in confined spaces is the classic style of winemaking workplace fatality, but those who go that way usually do so one at a time. During a quick internet search I came across articles about similar cases in Napa, France, and Spain.
A winemaker who interviewed me for a crush position yesterday told me that there’s consistently at least one of these fatalities a year. I declined the job (although the winemaker encouraged me to e-mail him if I have a change of heart), mainly because of concerns about the safety of confined-space entries into the tanks that he uses. He seems perfectly competent and reliable, but I’m not so sure about his equipment. He told me that employees on confined-space assignments are equipped with carbon dioxide meters and monitored at all times by a buddy immediately outside the tank, but he didn’t inspire my confidence when he told me that they are not given breathing masks. It’s not that masks would always be crucial, but if they were, they’d probably be a lot more reliable than trying to shimmy through a porthole in a hypoxic stupor. Similarly, the tanks are usually properly ventilated before entry, but on the rare occasions when they aren’t, scuba gear would be nice. So would a full-diameter opening at the top, rather than the twenty-inch chimneys topping some of the tanks.
A reasonable question to ask is why anyone has to go inside these tanks at all when they’re likely pooling carbon dioxide, when the must could instead be scraped, vacuumed, or blown out by someone standing fully outside. The answer, I believe, is quite simple: money. It’s cheaper to pay someone to climb inside with a shovel the moment there’s space to shimmy up through the hatch.
I’ve done hundreds of punchdowns and dozens of press runs, and I’ve never felt the slightest bit faint. The winemaker at this custom crush facility told me that garage winemakers are sometimes overcome, too, but it seems that most of these cases involve generally poor indoor ventilation. My uncle’s winery is cluttered as fuck but drafty and uninsulated, which means circulation. This winemaker also mentioned foolish last stands to pull wristwatches out of fermenting tanks, so stupidity clearly plays a role. But all else being equal, it seems inherently much safer to work with smaller equipment. The largest fermenting tanks I’ve emptied and cleaned have been macro bins, which hold roughly three hundred gallons of must, if I’ve calculated correctly. A large-scale stainless steel fermenter holds more like ten thousand gallons. After the free juice is drained, what’s left behind is dozens of times more skin volume in a dank, tight box.
On the bright side, I’d rather fade out and drift away in the tank than not go gentle into that good night in the eighteen-inch-diameter augur in the stemmer-crusher out front. That’s happened at least once. The poor kid just fell in. That’s why the standard procedure is to keep one’s waist below the outer edge of the hopper at all times.
These would be moot points if the equipment weren’t so fucking huge. Manual and small electric stemmer-crushers are a threat to limb (mainly for absentminded dipshits), but rarely are they a threat to life.
These efficiencies come at a price. It’s just that this price, as measured in the significant marginal threat to the lives of farm and food processing workers, is usually cheaper than the marginal costs of equipment and procedures that only a total yahoo could use to endanger anyone. It’s covered by business insurance policies, and it’s dictated by the markets. Even if you use equipment that’s less likely to suffocate the help, your competitors will all have their employees climbing into tanks with a shovel and someone on the outside trying to make sure that they don’t pass out.
California: where the Jeffersonian dream gets augured yet again.