Why be concerned about cannabis worker safety?
There are approximately 428,000 workers legally employed by cannabis operations in the USA, and 2021 sales of cannabis products reached nearly $25 billion according to the most recent Cannabis Jobs Report by Leafly.
A BDS Analytics study says 2027 worldwide sales will reach $57 billion — with the lion’s share of revenue coming from North America.
Even though the federal government still classifies cannabis as a controlled substance, 37 states and the District of Columbia say marijuana is okay for medical use, 21 have declared it legal for recreational use, and 10 have decriminalized the drug. Additionally, the FDA granted approval to several cannabis derivatives.
See the 2023 map below for a graphic look at the current legal status of cannabis across the USA.
2021 map below for reference:
Arguments pro and con aside, marijuana is now a visible and profitable business. Leafly calls the cannabis industry “America’s hidden job boom,” and a CNBC report said, “The marijuana industry looks like the fastest-growing job market in the country.”
Many observers, though, are concerned about the safety of cannabis workers:
- Are cannabis employees aware of the personal risks faced on the job?
- Have cannabis operation owners and managers accurately assessed the various threats to workers and developed health and safety plans to protect them?
- Is the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) in place, and do employees know when and how to use it?
This article is part of a series focused on the cannabis industry. FACS industrial hygiene experts have worked with some of the top growing operations in the United States to protect workers and their companies from on-the-job health and safety hazards.
We’ll describe the current situation, list the prevalent types of hazards, and note the types of personal protective equipment needed to enhance worker safety in cannabis operations.
Our aim is not to treat the topic of cannabis worker safety in-depth, but to help make those involved in cannabis work more aware of the threats and the requirements pertaining to the safety of workers in the cannabis industry.
Marijuana Operations and Worker Safety Requirements
Fieldwork by industrial hygienists shows that cannabis growers and processors tend to be exceptionally skilled at cultivating marijuana plants and turning them into consumer products — but they often lack adequate knowledge of worker safety requirements.
Since marijuana is an agricultural crop, states have seen little need to write specific worker safety laws for cannabis operations. Federal safety regulations for agricultural operations are well-developed and extensive.
Legalization is a recent development, however, and agencies that inspect agricultural operations are not yet sufficiently staffed to handle the spike in the licensing of marijuana business facilities, so the enforcement of worker safety regulations has been lax. That situation will probably not last much longer, though.
In time, regulations meant to protect employees will be strenuously enforced, and that will almost certainly lead to enforcement action against companies where worker safety practices are lacking. Violations leading to worker injury or illness will likely result in legal action.
FACS industrial hygienists urge marijuana operators to be proactive and get serious about worker safety — now instead of later. Protected workers tend to be happier workers. They sense that management really does care about them, and that makes getting to work regularly and on time considerably easier.
To highlight the need for PPE awareness, the next section of this article is a list of common health and safety threats to cannabis workers, along with examples of the equipment and methods required for worker protection.
Note the workers’ rights statement from OSHA below. All it takes is for an employee to make a complaint, and an OSHA inspector will soon be on site.
5 Critical Areas of Worker Safety Concern in the Cannabis Industry
1) Mold and other allergens can be a huge problem for cannabis operations. Some workers are much more sensitive than others, so it may be wise for those who are tasked with hiring workers to include a statement about biological dangers in the workplace.
Common methods and equipment used to alleviate biological hazards posed by cannabis industry employment include the following:
- Provide respirators when and where the assessment indicates
- Provide gloves suitable to the materials being handled
- Provide goggles and show workers how to adjust them
- Make sure there is adequate airflow and ventilation in the work area
- Monitor air quality in high-danger areas of the operation
Industrial hygienists can monitor air quality in the work environment to determine the level of concern during different phases of production. They can also recommend mold control processes to prevent outbreaks.
2) Insecticides, fungicides, and rodenticides are commonly used in agricultural operations. OSHA and the EPA have strict guidelines concerning pesticide application. Depending on the products used, effects on workers can include damage to the nervous system, skin and respiratory reactions, and even cancer.
Workers should always be briefed on the potential dangers of the pesticides in use and the safe handling methods required.
Common methods and equipment used to alleviate hazards posed by pesticide exposure in cannabis operations include the following:
- Pesticide containers should be labeled with information providing the name of the product, active ingredients, EPA number, and all caution statements
- Pesticide products should be applied in strict accordance with the product instructions and cautions
- Provide respirators, gloves, and protective clothing as required
- Show workers how to perform standard decontamination procedures after working with pesticides and non-routine decontamination in an emergency
- Make sure non-protected workers do not inadvertently enter an area where pesticide application is active or where residue contact is unsafe
Open communication between management and staff is essential. Workers who overestimate the threat posed by pesticides can generate internal fears and grumbling. Workers can also underplay the potential dangers of pesticides and fail to treat the chemicals with due respect.
3) Carbon dioxide (CO2) is commonly used in the marijuana industry to stimulate plant growth and facilitate the production of cannabis concentrates. It is also produced by gasoline-powered equipment.
CO2 displaces oxygen and acts as an asphyxiant when the levels are high enough. Since it is odorless and colorless, victims can be overcome before they realize CO2 is a threat.
Methods of reducing the dangers posed by CO2 to cannabis workers include the following:
- Monitoring for CO2 buildup is a must
- Provide adequate ventilation in all areas
- Use electrical-powered equipment where possible
- Train workers to recognize and react to symptoms of CO2 exposure
Industrial hygienists can identify trouble spots and recommend control methods to reduce the likelihood of CO2 accumulation.
4) Chemical hazards other than pesticides are a daily threat. Powerful corrosive ingredients are often used to mix plant nutrients. These can potentially cause severe skin and lung damage.
Chemicals used for cleaning and sanitation often get overlooked as relatively harmless. Regular exposure — even to standard household brands — can create problems, though.
Here are some of the methods and equipment required to keep workers safe from chemical hazards:
- Educate workers on the dangers posed by chemicals and show them how to protect themselves against adverse effects
- Make chemical-resistant gloves available, as appropriate
- Provide respirators, as exposure assessments indicate the need, and make sure employees know when and how to use them
- Make sure safety glasses and eyewash stations are provided
Industrial hygienists can assess ventilation systems, conduct exposure assessments, recommend storage methods, and help educate staff on the proper handling of chemicals.
5) Flammable and combustible liquids pose a significant safety hazard, especially at marijuana production facilities where they are used in the extraction processes. Compressed gases are coupled with high-pressure machinery and intense heat — a perfect triad for an explosive inferno.
Extraction operations should follow strict procedural guidelines and be carried out by trained personnel who know and adhere to a comprehensive fire protection plan. The extraction areas themselves should be dedicated to the job and all equipment cleared for use in a potentially explosive environment.
Examples of protective equipment and worker safety considerations for cannabis extraction:
- Ensure gas cylinders are equipped with safety relief valves
- Store gas cylinders upright and immobilized
- Install a flammable gas detection system
- Install a hazardous gas exhaust system
- Install a fire suppression system
- Obtain a hazard assessment by an industrial hygienist or fire safety expert
Cannabis Worker Safety and Methods: Find Out More
This has not been an exhaustive treatment of the hazards encountered on the job at cannabis growing and processing facilities. We’ve listed five areas of concern, but there are more.
FACS industrial hygienists urge employers to consider other potential trouble spots for employee injuries and illnesses:
- Ergonomic adjustments may be needed to curtail repetitive motion injuries and obtain optimized levels of production
- Lighting can lead to UV radiation concerns, eye strain, and hazards presented by broken bulbs
- Electrical hazards make the possibility of electrical shock an ever-present reality
- Walkways can become slick or blocked
- Noise can be an issue
- Hot surfaces can cause burns
Even the most lucrative business can suffer financial setbacks brought on by failing to adhere to worker safety standards. Fines can be stiff and lawsuits can be costly.
The surest way to protect against worker safety problems is to get a workplace safety assessment from a qualified industrial hygienist and follow the suggestions made.
Marijuana production was once an outlawed industry. Owners and managers didn’t worry about local, state, and federal regulations. Those days are gone, though, and the companies that survive over the long term will realize the value of worker safety and take action immediately to make sure their facilities comply with safe workplace standards.