Kerry Thomas climbed up on a brew stand one day last week at Edge Brewing Co., watching over a batch of beer brewing inside a 500-gallon tank.
“It’s very empowering being back to work,” said Thomas, 38. “Now that I’ve been back full time for a while, it feels like where I belong again. It makes me feel like I can conquer anything.”
Last July 10, Thomas was tending to a batch of Obligatory Double IPA ale when something went wrong. A syrupy, bubbling brew spewed out of the 18-inch opening at the top of the tank and sprayed her.
Thomas suffered burns to 30 percent of her body — from her shoulder to her foot. She spent a month being treated at the University of Utah Health Care burn unit in Salt Lake City. Until she left, she wasn’t told that two-thirds of patients they see with burns that bad die.
She remained off the job until late December, when her doctors allowed Thomas to come back to work, but only on a part-time basis and with weight restrictions.
“I wasn’t allowed to lift anything. I was only here four hours, so mostly just ‘observating,’ working on some recipe design and cleaning up around the brewery. After not being there for several months, it just wasn’t up to like my normal cleaning standards,” Thomas said.
I didn’t do a lot of hands-on brewing at first.
Kerry Thomas on returning to work
That changed six weeks ago. Now, she’s allowed to work up to eight hours a day and can go back to slinging empty 40-pound kegs, 50-pound bags of grain and hoses of the same weight.
When she first returned to work, Thomas said it seemed a bit strange. Turnover in the restaurant business is typically high and she said there were many new faces she didn’t recognize in the front of the house.
Approaches job differently
“I’m definitely a lot more cautious about everything, not just the kettles. Sometimes, you don’t realize how dangerous your job is, because you do it every day. We work around chemicals and batters, slippery floors, heat. There’s so many different hazards in the brewery and you just take them for granted when you’re around them all the time,” Thomas said, saying safety procedures have been made more stringent.
Thomas said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and sees a psychologist for that. She also takes a prescription medication to help with the condition and attends group sessions for other Treasure Valley burn victims.
“Every time I open a vessel in the brewery now, even if I know there’s nothing in it that’s going to hurt me, I have that paralyzing moment of fear. And I just work through it,” Thomas said.
There are times, though, when Thomas leaves the room.
“I still have trouble when the kettle is boiling. Frequently, my assistant takes over the boil and I’ll take a lunch break, go clean a tank or do something else while he watches the boil. That causes me a different kind of fear, that something’s going to happen to him,” she said. “It doesn’t happen every day, but there’s some days where it’s worse than others.”
I’m more cautious now about everything in the brewery now, not just the boil.
Physically, the job has always been demanding, Thomas said. But the added mental toll is equally draining.
“It’s exhausting. I mean, I’m exhausted by the end of the day. Just because of the emotional drain of working through the day, but, like I said, I don’t want to do anything else,” she said.
Brewing turns mash into sticky liquid
The brewing process begins with malted barley, hops and other grains getting added to hot water. In a process known as mashing, the mixture is cooked for an hour to break down the grains into sugars that are later fermented to create alcohol.
After the water is removed, what’s left is called wort, a sweet, sticky liquid full of the sugars from the grains. The wort — with hops and spices added to the mixture — is boiled for an hour in a 500-gallon brew kettle.
The accident occurred near the end of the boil. Thomas stood on the brew stand, a metal walkway that wraps around the kettle 5 feet above the ground that provides waist-high access to the top of the kettle. The boiling liquid spilled out of the 18-inch opening at the top of the kettle like water from a stovetop pot of noodles.
Boilovers are not unusual in brewing, Thomas said. Typically, the liquid runs down the side of the kettle but poses no danger to someone on the brew stand. Water sprayed from a hose prevents more liquid from boiling over. It took several moments before an assistant brewer using a hose at a nearby mash vat could get to her.
Medical treatment, skin grafts and physical therapy
During her treatment at the Utah hospital, Thomas underwent a series of skin grafts. Nerve endings exposed from the burns caused excruciating pain and Thomas suffered from breathing difficulties, an irregular heartbeat and gastrointestinal issues.
Even after she returned to Boise, Thomas went through months of medical care and physical therapy sessions. She had to wear compression garments over her upper and lower body. The custom-made garments were so restricting they only lasted six weeks before they lost their elasticity and had to be replaced.
“They put the fear in you: ‘If you don’t wear your compression garments, your skin will tear and you’ll get scar tissue formations and you’ll lose mobility,’” said Thomas, who was allowed to stop wearing them only weeks ago.
Rewarded with brewing awards
Thomas was pleased when two of her beers won awards earlier this month at the North American Beer Awards.
Edge Brewing won a gold medal for its Odelay Vienna Style Lager and a bronze medal for its Imperial Red Ale.
“Winning is always awesome,” Thomas said. “It’s definitely very validating that I’m doing things the right way. I haven’t lost the touch.”
Accident led other breweries to examine their safety procedures
The brewing accident that injured Kerry Thomas caused great concern within the craft beer industry in Idaho, said brewer Matt Ganz, president of Idaho Brewers United — the state brewers’ guild — and one of the owners of Salmon River Brewery in McCall. It also prompted breweries to evaluate their own safety procedures and determine whether any improvements could be made.
Idaho Brewers United spoke with its 30 member breweries and promoted online safety training offered by the Brewers Association, a trade group for craft brewers in Boulder, Colo.
“I know that absolutely a discussion was generated,” Ganz said. “Whether or not every individual brewery implemented some new systems in order to try to prevent something like what happened to Kerry, I can’t say for sure.”
As an organization, Idaho Brewers United has talked with our members about safety.
Matt Ganz, president of the brewers guild
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated the boil-over that caused Thomas’ injuries but did not find any violations of safety rules, said David Kearns, the agency’s area director in Boise.
Edge was cited, however, for two violations of confined space regulations. The brewery also failed to have a written safety policy for employees to enter the mash tank to clean it.
The agency proposed a $4,900 fine and later agreed to accept $2,500, which Edge paid. The brewery also agreed to undergo a free workplace safety audit conducted by the Idaho Occupational Safety & Health Consultation Program offered by Boise State University.
“These are kind of the white hats, where they don’t issue citations. They can come into an employer and help out small employers, free of charge,” Kearns said.
Edge cooperated and worked to correct the violations, he said.