What are the dangers of roasting coffee?

Aidan Gant
March 1, 2022
coffee roasting dangers

Few aromas are as tantalising as roasting coffee – but working in a roastery or cafe could be more toxic than you’d expect.

As with many occupations, roasting coffee comes with its own dangers. These can vary between slips and falls to cuts and burns, and the repetitive stress injury known as Barista Wrist, which can keep cafe workers sidelined for over a year.

Business owners must manage these risks appropriately to ensure the health and wellbeing of their employees. Furthermore, it is their legal and moral responsibility to minimise the risks posed by these dangers.

Read on to learn more about the dangers of roasting coffee, and how you can avoid injury in your roastery.

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coffee roastery

What are the immediate dangers of roasting coffee?

The more immediate threats posed to coffee roasters are quite common, such as burns from hot equipment and tripping over extension cords.

Additionally, there are many handling risks involved in the daily routine of a roastery employee, such as lifting and moving sacks of green coffee.

Typically, these sacks weigh between 50kg (110lbs) and 70kg (154lbs). This is up to three times the safe single-person lifting maximum imposed by the Health and Safety Executive, a UK government body responsible for workplace safety.

What’s more, roasters and roasted coffee can get extremely hot. General operational charge temperatures can range from 160ºC (320ºF) to around 220ºC (428ºF), depending on the roaster and the quantity of coffee. Any contact with surfaces above 43ºC (109.4ºF) can lead to serious injury.

Equipment running at high temperatures for a long period can also create an intense working environment.

Thermal comfort at work can affect performance. For example, if your body temperature is too high, you can be more prone to making mistakes that could lead to serious injury.

roasting coffee

Are there any long-term risks?

Long-term dangers in roasting coffee are harder to detect and protect against than short-term, common injuries.

These dangers can range from ergonomic injuries resulting from bending over packing tables for long periods to more serious dangers posed by roasting the coffee.

Among these, the primary cause for concern is the potential to inhale chemicals that are released during the roast, such as diacetyl and acetyl propionyl.

When inhaled, these chemicals may cause a rare lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, more commonly known as “popcorn lung”.

The term popcorn lung came after an outbreak of incidents that occurred in a popcorn factory in the 1990s, where workers inhaled dangerous chemicals from artificial butter flavouring.

Fortunately, most roastery employees are protected from direct inhalation due to the extensive ventilation requirements of modern, closed-system roasting equipment.

As a result, fumes such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are removed from the working environment.

However, further risk lies in the off-gassing phases where gases continue to escape during cooling. Usually, this is accounted for in larger roasteries, where they place cooling racks in well-ventilated areas.

That said, micro-roasters may face a greater risk, as they often operate in smaller spaces without adequate ventilation and infrastructure. As this segment of the market grows, it is increasingly important that people are aware of these risks.

A final factor to consider is the possibility of developing hypersensitivity to green coffee beans, and particularly, their dust.

Research shows prolonged and repeated exposure to an allergenic compound in green coffee can cause workers to develop allergies. At least 20% of the workers involved in the study reported work-related respiratory symptoms.

coffee roaster

What can roasters do to reduce the risks?

With proper management and training, roasters can drastically reduce the risk of injury within the workplace. 

Encouraging employees to follow best practice guidelines can help prevent everyday hazards, such as slips and falls, and injuries resulting from heavy lifting. 

However, risk management relating to the control and potential inhalation of harmful substances could be more difficult. 

If roasters have any doubts about how to minimise these risks, the best thing to do is to employ an occupational safety consultant. This is someone from a third-party organisation who can offer advice to businesses to help them manage health and safety risks.

Another vital tool for ensuring employee safety is to monitor the air quality in the workplace, and regularly air sample for specific volatile organic compounds. To do this, roasters can install air quality monitors that work the same way as a carbon monoxide detector. 

It is likely most roasters already monitor air quality to maintain optimal conditions for green bean storage. However, there are integrated systems available that can cater to both these problems. 

Additionally, it is good practice to ensure all workplaces are well ventilated – particularly areas where off-gassing takes place. 

Furthermore, regular maintenance of extraction systems is vital, as a build-up of dust and coffee oils can reduce their efficiency.

For good measure, employees who are at high risk, such as those who suffer from respiratory conditions like asthma, should wear individual personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks.

These can help to filter out harmful particles and prevent lung irritation. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, PPE has also become increasingly widespread as a means to reduce the spread of the virus in roasteries. For the most part, this has allowed employees to continue working safely.

recyclable kraft paper coffee bags

Overall, it is essential employees are aware of the risks and know what they can do to keep themselves and others safe. With proper awareness and a responsible attitude, roasting coffee can continue to be a safe and rewarding venture. 

Equally important is that the roasted coffee remains fresh until consumers can enjoy it. Roasters should invest in sustainable packaging solutions that ensure optimal preservation while allowing for continued off-gassing through integrated valves. 

At MTPak Coffee, we understand how much time and effort goes into roasting quality coffee. For that reason, we offer the highest quality sustainable coffee packaging. 

Our range includes 100% recyclable kraft and rice paper coffee pouches in a variety of shapes and sizes, as well as recyclable degassing valves that are completely BPA-free. Our water-based inks are also low in volatile organic compounds.

For more information on our sustainable coffee bags, contact the team

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Aidan Gant
Aidan Gant

Aidan spent his early career working in cafes alongside coffee roasters and in other hospitality positions. He owned a vegan tapas restaurant, specialty coffee bar, and live jazz venue, which he operated with his partner before closing during the Covid-19 pandemic. Since 2020, he has made his living writing about coffee and the environment, and is currently a researcher and doctoral student in Creative Writing.

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