Workers at coffee roasting plants and coffee processing facilities across the country may be at risk of developing a dangerous lung disease called obliterative bronchiolitis, which scars the human lungs and causes chronic dysfunction.
Government investigators published a paper in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine about the specific health hazard at coffee processing facilities, including those plants producing flavored coffees and unflavored coffee beans.
Should coffee roasting companies ignore safety guidelines, they may be liable for exposing employees to known toxins and the injuries that may be sustained as a result on chronic exposure. NIOSH is working with a number of coffee processing facilities in determining safe limits of exposure, and further studies are underway.
In 2012, several workers at a coffee roasting plant in Texas were diagnosed with obliterative bronchiolitis. Following the incident, the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) sent inspectors to investigate.
The CDC found high levels of diacetyl in the flavoring of certain roasted coffee beans. The highest concentrations of the toxic chemical were found in the flavoring room.
They also found levels of diacetyl in the grinding and packing areas where unflavored coffee beans were being processed. Diacetyl also occurs naturally from roasting coffee, and it is released in greater quantities during the grinding process.
A couple years after the Texas incident, NIOSH received many requests from coffee roasters around the country to have their facilities assessed. Researchers have found links between exposure to the chemical and a rare lung disease, but they are still trying to quantify how much exposure causes damage. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says there are no plans to make rules regulating popcorn lung in workplaces.
The management of some coffee processing plants are taking precautions against workplace exposure. As some popcorn companies replaced diacetyl with other flavorings, coffee roasters are considering a similar change to protect coffee roasting employees for the long term. The CDC recommends the following precautions:
- Use a vacuum instead of sweeping up dust
- Provide masks and respirators for workers
- Workplace Ventilation Risks by installing exhaust piping over grinders, blenders and packagers
- Keep an overhead exhaust fan operating continuously
- Automate blending process to distance workers from chemicals
- Consider alternative flavoring compounds
- Institute a medical monitoring program
Coffee Roasting Popcorn Lung Lawsuits
Coffee roasting companies have a responsibility to take precautions and protect workers. When they fail to protect coffee roasting employees, lawsuits may be filed and workers may seek compensation for injuries related to the workplace.
Coffee production plants have been under review by government health agencies after reports of workers developing a number of respiratory diseases including bronchiolitis obliterans, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, granulomatosus disease, emphysema, asthma and interstitial lung disease.
These occupational illnesses were first seen in microwaveable popcorn manufacturing employees exposed to diacetyl fumes at the workplace.