Friday, July 1, 2022

NIOSH report: Anheuser-Busch employee concerns prompted probe into can-packing line health risks

A report released in May by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found some can-packing line employees during a data-gathering period in September 2017 reported work-related symptoms and injuries related to their jobs on the can-packing line. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
A report released in May by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found some can-packing line employees during a data-gathering period in September 2017 reported work-related symptoms and injuries related to their jobs on the can-packing line. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

On every box of Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Light, there is an identification code etched into the cardboard.

Unlike printed labels, the etching is done using a laser-coding machine on cases of canned brewery products. The laser process creates a somewhat-textured identification code along the package, but also leaves behind another byproduct in the facility.

Dust.

A report released in May by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found some can-packing line employees during a data-gathering period in September 2017 reported work-related symptoms and injuries related to their jobs on the can-packing line.

The health hazard evaluation investigation centered around the laser-coding process along the can-packing lines, which emits odors and dust but uses a ventilation machine to reduce exposure.

“We found metals, acrylates, and benzophenone in filter particulate and volatile compounds and benzophenone in brewery air,” the report reads.

The investigation was prompted by the Teamsters Local Union 95, the union representing Anheuser-Busch employees.

In January 2016, Anheuser-Busch introduced a new UV-coated carton. When the new carton came on-board, existing maintenance procedures and filter change-out schedules could no longer adequately control odors and — perhaps — particulate exposures, according to the report. 

“Our members brought it to us,” said Bryan Bishop, business agent for the brewery and the secretary and treasurer for Teamsters Local 95, the union representing brewery employees. “They didn’t feel like the company was doing enough about it on their own, to do the tests that needed to be done to see about the new cardboard… They weren’t feeling like they were getting all the information.”

While the report found some negatives surrounding the ventilation system in 2017, union representative Bryan Bishop said the NIOSH investigation occurred as Anheuser-Busch was already working to improve the systems — but NIOSH helped bring attention to the issue.

NIOSH testing in 2017 still found an organic compound called benzophenone in air samples.

“During the investigation, things were changing,” Bishop said. “The company was changing how they did things about it. They weren’t waiting to get the [NIOSH] report back. They even replaced an entire [laser coder and ventilation] unit.”

Bishop said a handful of employees — probably about eight — came to the union with concerns about the UV-coated cardboard.

“I think it got the ball rolling once one or two people started questioning it,” Bishop said. “Maybe once [it was brought up], everybody who worked around the equipment said ‘Hey, maybe we should look into this.’”

The longterm impact of the NIOSH report remains unclear, but Bishop expects NIOSH officials will meet with the union and present their findings at some point in the future.

Anheuser-Busch Corportate Communications Director Samantha Roth released a statement Monday in response to a WYDaily request for information: “At our Williamsburg facility, we have a dust collection system for each of our lines. As employee safety is our first priority, we have Standard Operating Procedures which employees are required to follow for operation, maintenance, and cleaning by routine to keep the lines operating correctly. In addition to these employees being highly trained and capable of maintaining these dust collection systems in good working condition, we also have preventative maintenance programs in place.

We have worked closely with NIOSH to ensure they are satisfied with how we operate and manage our dust collection process.”

Metals and acrylates

The NIOSH investigation tested the inside of the dust ventilation unit and the air in the can-packing area. 

Bulk dust from the unit contained several metals, molecules and acrylic acid-based chemicals, while air tests revealed ethanol, acetaldehyde and benzophenone. 

Anheuser-Busch’s respiratory protection program listed filtering face respirators as optional for cleaning activities, which “conflicted” with written procedures, according to the report.

The report states samples showed various compounds in the air around the packing line, including ethanol, acetaldehyde, methyl ethyl ketone, acetic acid, ethyl acetate, bromoform, 2-butoxyethanol, and other volatile and semivolatile compounds.

NIOSH inspectors identified several compounds “of interest” that do not evaporate easily at room temperature. Of the six compounds of interest, only one, benzophenone, was found in air samples.

Sixteen of the 34 workers reported they had two or more physical symptoms in the four weeks before the NIOSH data-gathering period.

The symptoms, which are not specific to any one chemical, included irritation of the nose or throat, headaches, cough, unusual tiredness or fatigue, irritation of the eyes and dizziness or lightheadedness, according to the report. 

“Area air samples near the can-packing lines, including at operator work locations, showed the presence of isopropanol, methyl ethyl ketone, and other organic solvents in the work area that can cause or contribute to headaches,” the report reads.

Benzophenones and certain metals are also known to cause skin irritation, which was another reported symptom by eight of the 34 employees.

Of workplace-related injuries reported by the employees, about half required more attention than first aid, according to the report.

Education

Another focus of the report was on worker information and training. NOISH investigators found “few employees” felt well-informed about the materials they worked with. 

A total of 34 employees, 32 from the can-packing lines, filled out a questionnaire. One question asked whether they felt well-informed about the materials they worked with. Eight employees said “yes,” 22 said “somewhat” and four said “no.”

In the same survey, 44 percent of the employees said they had a high level of concern about their health, which 27 percent and 29 percent indicated low and moderate levels of health concerns, respectively.

Recommendations

Union health concerns cued the investigation, but the report also uncovered some positives at the brewery, including supervisor compliance with safety regulations and “coaching practices.”

The report recommends Anheuser-Busch improves its procedures by formalizing a mandatory training program for packing line employees. Training in the past was less formal, with employees teaching others how to clean the ventilation unit, according to the report.

It also recommends creating a “medical surveillance program” to keep track of skin or respiratory conditions reported by employees.

On the employee side, the NIOSH report encourages Anheuser-Busch workers to report health signs to supervisors or safety and health offices, as well as participate in all trainings related to their job duties.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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