Safety culture Drugs

Cannabis worker safety

As jobs in the legal cannabis industry increase, so does the need for injury prevention training

Cannabis worker safety
Image: CasarsaGuru/iStockphoto

Roberta Smith wondered, “Will anyone show up?”

The occupational health program manager at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and her colleagues were hosting the department’s first 8-hour worker safety training session for the legal cannabis industry.

The industry’s interest in guidance on worker safety became clear when the session drew a standing room-only crowd in Denver.

Six months before the June 2017 training session, CDPHE released a 78-page “Guide to Worker Safety and Health in the Marijuana Industry,” a resource that provides guidelines to the state’s fledgling legal cannabis industry to help employers build occupational safety and health programs.

“We were pleasantly surprised when we filled up all 100 seats within two days,” said Smith, who was part of the 45-member work group that developed the guide. “They all stayed for the entire training and filled out surveys.

“That was our wake-up call of, ‘Oh my gosh, they really need this.’”

Business is booming

Although it’s considered an illicit substance at the federal level, cannabis is legal for recreational and/or medicinal use in 34 states and the District of Columbia.

Nationwide, more than 211,000 people are employed full time in the legal cannabis industry, cannabis news, information and sales website Leafly states in its “Cannabis Jobs Count” report, published in March.

Comparing 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, legal cannabis workers outnumber electrical engineers (191,900), nurse practitioners (189,100) and human resource managers (152,100).

“The growth of the industry is accelerating at a phenomenal pace,” said Beau Whitney, vice president and senior economist for the analytics company New Frontier Data, a contributor on the jobs report.

If the federal government were to fully legalize cannabis use today, New Frontier Data projects the industry would exceed 1.6 million jobs by 2025.

Familiar hazards

Certified industrial hygienist Meg Glade has worked in national parks, power plants, food processing facilities and for a large utility company. For the past two years, she has been the environmental health and safety manager at Native Roots, a cannabis dispensary company in Colorado that, as of Nov. 1, had 22 retail locations, as well as a production facility with 250 employees.

“I came to realize that everything I’ve seen everywhere else is basically the same types of hazards we see in this industry,” Glade said.

Those hazards include:

  • Slips, trips and falls in retail settings
  • Potential water and electrical interactions in cultivation
  • Repetitive-motion injuries to workers trimming marijuana
  • Exposure to pesticides, mold and various dangerous chemicals

“The best thing we have going for us right now is we have so many things that are so similar to other industries that we have this great pool of resources to pull from,” Glade said.

Even indoor cultivation and the highly technical process of extracting oils from cannabis have links to other industries, she added.

In Michigan, where voters in December 2018 approved recreational cannabis use, extraction is common among the state’s mint growers.

“We’ve been doing plant extraction in Michigan for a long time,” said Jenelle K. Thelen, an industrial hygienist with Michigan OSHA’s Consultation, Education and Training Division. “[Cannabis is] just a new plant product.”

Glade agreed: “When you take that specific plant out of the equation, it’s no different than growing tomatoes or extracting mint.”

At Native Roots’ cultivation and manufacturing facility, Glade said the same OSH questions are discussed just as they are in other industries.

“Does it have guards?” she asked. “Is it grounded? Have [ground-fault circuit interrupters] been tested?”

Cannabis worker hazards

Bradley King, a Denver-based industrial hygienist for NIOSH, places worker hazards in the cannabis industry under “three broad umbrellas”:

Chemical exposures: Butane and carbon dioxide (from the extraction process and pesticide use)

Biological exposures: Mold, fungi and indoor air quality

Physical exposures: Ergonomic issues from hand trimming or tending plants; noise; ultraviolet light; machine guarding; working at height; and slips, trips and falls

Where are the hazards?

In Washington state, where voters approved recreational cannabis use in 2012, the Department of Labor & Industries reviewed 380 cannabis industry workers’ compensation claims made between July 2014 and September 2017.

Of the claims reviewed, 285 (75%) of the injuries occurred in farm and greenhouse settings, where the most common injuries reported were struck by or caught in an object (103), overexertion and repetitive motion (75), falls (38), and exposure to harmful substances (35).

Fifty-four (14.2%) of the claims stemmed from incidents that occurred in retail settings, including 22 that involved struck-by or caught-in injuries, as well as 10 resulting from falls.

Finally, the food and extract manufacturing sector accounted for 41 claims, led by injuries caused by struck by or caught in an object (16), and overexertion and repetitive motion (16).

Training expands

CDPHE’s guide is now being shared by safety and health agencies in California, Oregon and Washington state. The department has conducted additional training events and partnered with OSHA’s regional office in Denver and other stakeholders to enhance training resources.

CDPHE conducted a second, larger training event with a webinar component in Denver in November 2017, then branched out to Pueblo the following August. This past February, CDPHE partnered with 3M for an 8-hour session focused on personal protective equipment.

All three events were so well-received that CDPHE turned to OSHA for help with more safety resources.

Jolene Donahue, owner of The OSHA Connection LLC, a Colorado-based training and consulting company, in September helped conduct the first OSHA 10-hour general industry course specifically for the cannabis industry.

The course content, according to OSHA’s Rocky Mountain Education Center website, includes an “introduction to industrial hygiene, ergonomics, walking-working surfaces, workplace violence, hazard communication, confined space and materials handling.” In addition to earning the OSHA 10-hour card, workers who complete the course receive a “Hazard Awareness for Workers in Colorado’s Cannabis Industry” certificate.

Early hurdles

The advancement of training and education resources signals a shift from the industry’s early days in 2014 in Colorado, Donahue said.

A 2018 study from Colorado State University found that around 46% of legal cannabis industry workers surveyed said they received “little to no” safety training since being hired.

“I feel like the industry was so focused on product and really creating a good foundation for their businesses,” Donahue said. “That first number of years where the industry was coming together was focused on those business aspects. The focus wasn’t on the OSHA compliance part of things.”

She added that misconceptions about OSHA being hands-off because of cannabis’ illicit status at the federal level led to confusion among employers.

“You don’t know what you don’t know until you don’t know it,” Donahue said. “I feel like it’s changing. [Employers have] a good foundation now. Largely, they didn’t know they had hazards. Now they’re starting to say, ‘Oh, we do have areas that could be hazardous. How do we protect our employees?’ They don’t realize that OSHA does have some really good information for them and it’s something they need to pay attention to.”

(When asked about the legal cannabis industry by Safety+Health, OSHA issued the following statement: “All employers are required to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards, regardless of the industry or occupation. OSHA has not issued any specific guidance on marijuana facilities.”)

Smith said her office regularly fields calls from workers who are unaware they can contact OSHA with a workplace concern.

James Couch, an industrial hygienist with NIOSH, said the industry can do a better job of communicating resources and rights to workers. “I think it’s important that we get those (resources) in the worker orientation packages,” Couch said. “That would help address that situation.”

Where is cannabis legal?

Today, 11 states and the District of Columbia have approved recreational and medicinal cannabis use. An additional 23 states allow its use for medical purposes only. A look at where legal cannabis industries are in the United States:

Both recreational and medicinal use
Alaska, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington

Medicinal use only
Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, West Virginia

Sources: The Associated Press, NBC News

Open lines of communication

Through Colorado’s worker safety training efforts, Smith said her office, local OSHA representatives and NIOSH have engaged the cannabis industry.

“We met with a bunch of cannabis facilities and stakeholders and had a brainstorming session on the areas that are needed for training,” Smith said. “We asked, ‘Where are you confused? Where do you need help?’ So we were able to come up with a list of the top hazards in the industry very similar to what the guidelines focus on.”

During each of the CDPHE training events, OSHA representatives met with employers and workers and handed out business cards. “It gives me a little bit of the warm fuzzies that they really are here for the industry,” Glade said. “This industry is doing everything possible to do the right thing. We’re growing up.”


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