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July | August 2018
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We often talk about the “art and science” of roasting, and how the art should not be lost in all the technological advancements.
There are areas, however, where the science must be at the forefront, and the most important of those areas is the ongoing safety of the people who work around coffee.
We cannot assume that because coffee has been roasted for hundreds of years its byproducts aren’t potentially dangerous. Society has disregarded risks in the past with terrible consequences. At various times in our not-so-distant history, asbestos, lead and PCBs were considered wonder materials people couldn’t live without.
If you have not heard of diacetyl and its potential link to lung problems, it’s time to learn. We know diacetyl can rapidly affect lungs, and we know roasters and coffee workers are exposed to diacetyl. Although the causal relationships between coffee worker exposure and lung problems is still being researched, just knowing about the potential is enough to drive the need for action.
We as an industry must take the research seriously, as it is certain the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are taking it seriously. It is also time to solicit and cooperate on simple, cost-effective solutions across our industry.
Mitigations don’t have to be complex. Some involve training, and most involve ventilation with outside air exchange. In training employees, pay attention to mitigating potential high-exposure events, such as grinding and packaging, or opening closed bins that hold roasted or ground coffee. Monitor employees for exposure and ongoing breathing issues. Stay informed. Don’t bury your head in the sand on this issue.
Coffee, especially at small- and medium-scale production facilities, involves a great deal of contact between people and product. It’s not cost-effective for roasters to use fully automated, people-isolated production methods, so we have to take steps to protect our most valuable resource—our people. I cannot imagine writing a future column about a friend who is experiencing abnormal lung issues and breathing trouble, and in the same column lamenting our lack of action in this area. Roast encourages you to support and participate in research on this issue, and to take proactive steps to ensure the health and safety of workers across our industry.
If we are lucky, the research will show that exposure to diacetyl in coffee facilities does not negatively affect the long-term health of those who are exposed to it. In the meantime, however, we need to take proactive steps to safeguard the health of everyone working in coffee.
I would much rather write future columns on how science enhances the art of coffee.