Roasting coffee takes skill and dedication. It can also be a physically demanding job that involves standing for long hours and handling hot beans and equipment. Coffee beans also naturally produce some potentially hazardous compounds during the roasting process.
Health and safety may not be the most fascinating of topics, but it’s important that you and your staff members understand the risks involved in roasting coffee and what actions you can take to reduce risk.
Bags of green coffee at Matraz Café in Guadalajara, México. Credit: Ana Valencia
Roasting coffee has the potential to be dangerous. The nature of the job means hot equipment and coffee beans that could lead to burns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies a risk of exposure to coffee dust, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) Diacetyl (2,3-butanedione) and 2,3-pentanedione (acetyl propionyl).
Exposure to these substances has been linked to respiratory diseases including obliterative bronchiolitis, an irreversible form of lung disease also known as popcorn lung.
Sensitisation to green coffee beans is also a recognised hazard in a roastery. Laura Perry is the co-founder of Lüna Coffee, a roastery in Vancouver. She tells me that both she and her partner, as well as some of her colleagues have developed a sensitivity to green coffee due to repeat exposure.
“I’ve got quite a few industry friends who have to limit their exposure to green coffee, as hives or asthma can result from too much handling or inhalation,” she says. “Thankfully this is an enzyme that is destroyed in the roasting process, so we don’t have to stop drinking coffee.”
A view of a roastery. Credit: Neil Soque
Teodora Pitis is the founder and manager of Sloane Coffee Roastery in Bucharest. She says that she doesn’t have concerns about respiratory diseases, but that in her roastery “we work in a lot of heat sometimes, we lift heavy bags, and we stand for long hours.”
She also says, “I have heard of roasters developing an allergy to green coffee, but even the person telling me he developed this was more amused than concerned.”
A roaster inspects freshly roasted beans at Queen City Roasters, in Denver, Colorado. Credit: Devon Barker
So how can you reduce the risks and ensure a safe and healthy environment for you and your staff members? The CDC lists occupational exposure limits for some substances, but there may be variance in recommended exposure levels in different countries. Take a look at exposure limits and measure the levels in your roastery. There are also some general standards that can reduce health and safety risks.
Make sure to install the right equipment for your needs, including adequate ventilation and dust monitoring. It’s also important to keep this equipment maintained and your space clean. Coffee roasters that have built up oils will have reduced airflow and be at greater risk of smoke and fire.
Your roastery should have basic safety equipment easily at-hand, such as a well-stocked first aid kit, fire extinguishers, allergy-free gloves, and dust masks. Even if you have good ventilation and hygiene, some staff members may want to use masks and gloves to further reduce exposure.
A Giesen roaster at Black Cab Coffee, in London. Credit: Miguel Regalado
Teodora says, “We installed the equipment by the book. The roaster is at least a meter away from any wall, the exhaust pipe system is double walled, and we plan on adding a power transformer and back up generator.”
“Being a micro roastery (we operate on a Diedrich IR-12), we don’t use big quantities of coffee and therefore the hot coffee is easily manageable and the smoke is fully evacuated by the machine through a sturdy exhaust pipe. It doesn’t get in working space. The machines that we use (roaster, packing and sealing machines) are designed with the safety of the operator in mind.”
Lüna Coffee’s roasting room. Credit: Lüna Coffee
Laura tells me that “In a tiny facility like ours, it’s easy to brush off things like health and safety as things applying more to larger facilities. That way of thinking is a mistake in my mind. Everyone deserves a safe and healthy space to work. When we were considering where to set up our roasting space, we looked at how much space around our Diedrich IR12 there would be in order for there to be a safe perimeter.
“We have a device called Awair in our space that measures things like dust, carbon dioxide, VOCs [volatile organic compounds], humidity, and temperature. We originally installed it to monitor our green coffee since we’re extremely quality focused. It’s been really helpful for things like monitoring green coffee dust on weigh out and reminds us to wear dust masks and gloves to minimize our discomfort.”
Freshly roasted coffee. Credit: Battle Creek Coffee Roasters
Set up your space with efficient workflow and safety in mind. As well as having adequate space around machinery, make sure that exits, fire extinguishers, and first aid kits are clearly marked and easily accessible.
Laura says, “Our roastery is considered micro, at 600 square feet. The small facility size means layout is of critical importance to make sure we’re using space efficiently and safely. Clearly defined working areas, and multiple, thoughtful storage locations means no one is crossing through the roasting queue to grab a shipping box, and encroaching on each other’s space is minimized.
“Things like our band sealer are on carts with locking wheels, so when packing and sealing activities are underway, the cart is stationed beside wire racking where it needs to be. When packing is complete, it’s wheeled back to its dedicated storage area. Small roasting spaces can be safely and intelligently designed so that movement through each production is intentional and protective of those working in them.”
A Probat coffee roaster at a roastery in California. Credit: Tyler Nix
Laura advises putting any equipment that can be on secure locking wheels to make it easy to move around and store when not in use.
“Before you buy any equipment, shelving, tabletops etc., map out the entire process from receiving green to sending boxes out the door to your wholesale partners,” she says.
“Are there any repetitive tasks that could be mitigated somehow? Are there scenarios where you’ll need specific table height? When we’re sorting and bagging roasted coffee, we may want a different table height depending on who’s working and how tall they are. Our sorting table is electronically height adjustable, so no matter who we hire in the future, we won’t have to worry about whether we can accommodate them. Our weigh scale for green is on wheels too, so rather than having to carry green coffee across the roastery, we simply roll up with the scale.”
Nate Welland weighs coffee at Lüna Coffee. Credit: Lüna Coffee
Make sure that every staff member gets a tour of the roastery and fully understands how to use the equipment and associated safety devices. If they don’t understand why it’s important to turn on the ventilator or wear a mask, they may not do it.
Each country (and perhaps province or state) has its own regulations about health and safety. Make sure that you are familiar with them and that the roastery is up to any required codes. You might also want to appoint a member of staff to monitor health and safety, schedule regular health and safety days, or arrange training on specific topics. Basic first aid courses such as how to treat a burn and when to use an EpiPen can be useful and may help staff members feel prepared.
Freshly roasted coffee beans pour into the cooling tray. Credit: Ken Lecoq
Teodora says that team members at her roastery “go through work safety training periodically and have medical evaluations every three to six months in accordance with local legislation.”
She also says that “the best policy we use is to create an environment in which the team feels free to talk about their concerns. Listen to your staff’s concerns and needs. For some people, standing for eight hours is a major problem but heat is not, some people can’t lift more than 10 kgs while some enjoy a bit of heavy lifting.
“Also, we have a more relaxed policy about free days. If anyone needs a day or more off for any health issue, including emotional concerns or tiredness, we try to give it to them.”
Laura Perry bags coffee. Credit: Lüna Coffee
Roasting coffee has the potential to be unhealthy and unsafe, but it doesn’t have to be. By choosing the right equipment, designing your space with an eye on health and safety, and keeping staff members well-trained, you can roast coffee without concern.
So take a look at your roastery and talk to staff members about where there’s room for improvement.