Endangering workers’ lives to keep wine cheap

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.


2 thoughts on “Endangering workers’ lives to keep wine cheap

  1. Producing anything in bulk, or transporting it in bulk, are just dangerous activities for precisely the reason you cite: lots of moving things big enough to injure or kill you, or non-moving things that can swallow you or fall on you if you’re not careful.

    My experience of things like that was mostly in the US Navy. But despite the dangers accidents and fatalities were extremely rare. An operation (other than combat, of course) that featured one fatality per season simply would not have been permitted to continue unless the problem was fixed. If the problem was people sticking their limbs into threshing machines or what not, the solution would be training, training, and more training – backed by administrative punishment for transgressions – until people stopped doing the stupid.

    Maybe the difference isn’t just the profit motive, but the captive workforce in the military that is more susceptible to enforcement of safety practices.

    You write such interesting stuff.

    • That’s an interesting point about military discipline. It can cut either way. Moral, competent commanders can force otherwise sloppy subordinates to run a clean and safe operation. At the other extreme, callous commanders can force cautious subordinates to take unacceptable risks, as they did at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine during the Second World War, resulting in hundreds killed in a noncombat ordnance explosion, hundreds more injured, and a subsequent mutiny over unsafe workplace conditions. The silver lining about such a mass-casualty event happening in the military is that public outrage and more vigorous civilian oversight can force the commanders to thoroughly clean house after the fact.

      There’s simply no way to impose that degree of discipline on the American agricultural workforce. The market is too fragmented, with too many principals who feel under financial pressure to produce and, in places like California, too many unscrupulous contractors and subcontractors. In much of California it appears that the chain of command, if you will, is deliberately fragmented and muddled in order for farm owners to wash their hands of workplace abuses on their properties and absolve themselves of liability. They can just blame the problems on their labor contractors. It’s probably not by coincidence that the extremely ethical winery owner I was working for until last week (and will probably work for again, since it was just a seasonal layoff) takes care of all personnel matters in-house. Early on he used labor contractors on occasion, but he soured on that model pretty quickly.

      At the macro level, these safety problems are probably a function of lax regulation. The Boeing assembly lines appear to be operated under a strict shop discipline comparable to the command discipline on a naval ship, but there’s nothing of the sort in major American meatpacking houses. Very superficially, the two might look similar, but Boeing fires workers for cutting corners, while the meatpackers generally fire theirs for not cutting corners. The difference exists because the FAA and NTSB have a hawk’s eye on civil aviation, while the food safety regulators are understaffed and hobbled by corrupt political interests. The meatpacking industry has been aggressively consolidated in recent decades, so centralization of workforces isn’t enough on its own to facilitate workplace safety enforcement.

      There’s often a racial and civil rights angle to poor workplace safety. The casualties of the Port Chicago Disaster were largely black enlisted sailors serving in segregated units. The trashing of pay scales and workplaces safety in meatpacking has been accomplished largely by hiring illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. It’s harder to trash labor protections in industries where workers have full civil rights.

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