As an eager 19 year old undergraduate student of biotechnology embarking on an industrial visit to Pondicherry; I was eager to learn about the fermentation processes and how the final products are rolled out of a private distillery.
Our cumbersome group of 120 students was the starting point of chaos. The promise of free “sample” at the end of tour had already made some participants more vociferous than others. Distilleries on a small to medium scale have certain aseptic procedures to ensure that its fermentation silos do not catch contamination. We were given soft headwear in certain sections while shoe-pullover for other sections. A full lab coat and lab hat/ cap was to be worn at all times when present in the production area.
Knowing how a typical college crowd behaves these were fast replaced with their personal caps and immaculately combed hair. The large crowd ensured, no one would point and enforce them to follow the correct protocol OR simply, no one was paying attention as the large cohort moved from section to section.
Next incident occurred where a student chose to break from the group to find a restroom. He did so, unaccompanied and without offering any prior information to our tour leader, who had ‘specifically’ asked for compliance with safety procedures and to ask questions for any other assistance.
Perhaps this chap felt shy and didn’t want to make nature’s call a formal request, but he topped this, by hoarding onto empty glass bottles from within the plant, to take as souvenir. Later he was heard saying”….everyone looked at me in confusion when I was roaming around and asking for directions to the nearest restroom, very unhelpful people”.
Perhaps, the unreasonable factory workers were aghast and shocked to discover that a common person without safety gear can enter production area and do as he pleases.
The straw that broke the Camel’s back came in form of our bus driver, who was found inebriated on the factory compound. He had procured his choice of drink: Brandy from some kind gentlemen within the distillery and made the most of it while the students and faculty were on plant tour. Needless to say, his revelry costed us 3 extra hours before we could safely say he was deemed fit to drive.
This amusing yet remarkably unsafe incident triggered two learnings:
- My institution laid down specific rules and regulations to be followed at all times under the watchful eyes of our accompanying faculty while undertaking industrial visits.
‘Your safety is your responsibility’ was replaced with the concept of safety partners and largely a cohort looking out for each other, always. The safety protocol at the visit site is paramount and should be followed down to the word of letter, always.
- The distillery on the other hand modified its operations and separated the bottling/filling section behind a safety glass which acted as a safe barrier while offering unrestricted viewing. Thus direct access to any element who is not safety trained/certified by the organization. They employed stricter visitor protocols with provisions to avoid the drunk driver instances in the future.
More than the intricacies of fermentation and microbiology, a chastising experience of health and safety still lingers in my mind.
I wonder whether available technologies can be utilized to sensitize visitors to such dangers. At least it’s easily accessible now, more than ever before! Communicating messages to the masses is hardly difficult today. With the advent of smartphones, YouTube, videos, high-definition TVs, large screen broadcasting methods, among others, one is able to easily convey a simple message in a highly graphical and impactful manner.
Simple animation driven presentations can be used to convey processes, hazards, emergency response measures and many more. Even live videos of actual locations might work. Such presentation methods can prove to be highly effective (my friend may not have broken from the group, had he seen one!). It’s time to recognize some of these methods and see its applicability as a ‘common minimum protocol’ for ensuring safety.
Till that time, I’m hoping that distilleries can restrict access to its ales, lest someone felt the need for an impromptu indulgence.
(The above is a fictional account of a harrowed visitor visiting a distillery along with his class. Any resemblance to any person, dead or alive, is purely co-incidental.)