Growing Worker Safety Concerns in the Medical Marijuana Industry

ST. PAUL, Minn. –  To date, 36 states and the District of Columbia now allow medical marijuana, and the recreational use of cannabis is legalized in 17 states, the District of Columbia, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam for those over the age of 21. Another 13 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands have decriminalized its use. Additionally, 17 more states have also legalized the inclusion of cannabidiols (CBDs) to be used in various forms. However, each state handles the relevant cannabis industry production safety and health issues for workers in this emerging agricultural and retail industry differently.*

Moreover, as more marijuana grow operations open, there are a growing number of workers who are being employed in cannabis production. Have you assessed the hazards as well as health and safety risks that your workers might be exposed to and what personal protective equipment (PPE) may be able to keep them safe? Let’s explore this issue.

Historical Overview

map showing where medical marijuana is legal and to what extent

Marijuana was first regulated as a taxable substance under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act that classified cannabis as a Schedule 1 narcotic, which made possession and use federally illegal. Then, in 1996, voters in California ratified Proposition 215, which granted legal access in that state to marijuana for medical purposes. Since then, many other states have visited the marijuana legalization issue. Although marijuana is still prohibited under federal law as a Schedule 1 narcotic, it is not widely being enforced by federal officials in any of the states/localities and the District of Columbia where marijuana legalization and/or decriminalization legislation has passed.

Historically, the illicit nature of marijuana often led people to try to grow it in rooms with poor ventilation and no windows to prevent detection. These practices created dangerous safety conditions with potentially hazardous health effects on growers and cultivators. Yet, these concerns can still exist today for legal indoor marijuana producers who are not aware of the proper health and safety precautions they should be taking to protect their workers.

Guidelines about how to deal with and handle marijuana were traditionally drafted to help protect law enforcement who came across marijuana during drug raids. These policies typically do not address how to protect against cannabis production safety hazards that come from prolonged exposure and continuous handling, such as those that workers in grow farms, retail clinics and storefronts might be expected to face.



Cannabis Industry Production Safety – The Hazards

Local and state government entities, as well as grow operation owners, are recognizing a need across many states to have better health and safety protocols and programs to protect workers in the marijuana industry. For instance, issuing guidelines about care, handling and protection might address any of several hazards workers may encounter, such as:

  • Respiratory, eye and dermal exposures to 8-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) while handling plant buds
  • Exposures to different pesticides and fertilizers used for certain strains of the plants
  • Excessive ultraviolet (UV) exposure from grow lamps used in indoor facilities for the vegetative states and flowering cycles
  • Disproportionate carbon dioxide (CO2) exposure in greenhouses calibrated to optimize growing environments
  • Accidental carbon monoxide (CO) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) exposure from CO2 producing devices used to help promote plant growth
  • Burn and shock risks resulting from the improper wiring of grow lamps and other equipment, including butane extraction
  • Cuts, nicks, scrapes that may occur while harvesting the buds, flowers and other elements of the plant
  • Pinches, carpal tunnel and repetitive stress injuries of shears and gardening equipment during harvesting
  • Mold exposure related to indoor growing operations caused by improper ventilation
  • Heat-stress from working in outdoor facilities, especially greenhouses

Interest in the chemical properties of cannabinoids (CBN) and CBDs, different strains of the Cannabis Indica and Sativa subspecies as well as the demand for hemp products, such as edibles, have increased to an all-time high. As this industry grows and more workers become involved in the marijuana production industry, there is an increased risk of these types of injuries and exposure to industrial hazards.


Harvesting Marijuana

Resources for OHS Actions of Cannabis Production

Many of the same principles associated with the agricultural production apply to the cannabis industry production safety. That said, several sources have created information customized to cannabis.

For example, Colorado currently has the most licensed dispensaries and grow operations in the US with more than 1,000 legally registered entities. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment published a comprehensive guide for developing a worker health and safety program.

In addition, Washington State also has many resources that can help producer/growers as well as processors and retailers with establishing cannabis industry production safety protocols. As its website points out, “Preventive efforts make good business sense when you begin to consider the possible costs associated with a tragic accident.”

Overall, a lack of information about what equipment is needed, how to protect your workers and how to put these programs in place has been a chief complaint from stakeholders in this emerging industry. As noted earlier, Washington and Colorado are leading the OHS charge on the government side so far. In addition, the Technical Service team at 3M is another resource that can help evaluate EHS issues in your operation and provide suggestions to help you run a safe operation.

Personal Protective Equipment Considerations for Cannabis Employees

There are several types of PPE and programs that can be put in place to help protect the health and safety of marijuana growing, production and retail workers. Check out our infographic that outlines legal cannabis growing operation hazards and health risks as well as PPE that may be able to help protect workers.

For instance, different types of respirators may be needed to help protect against the short and long-term exposure to the plants, mold or pesticides. 3M has a Center for Respiratory Protection that offers a free online guide, education, information and step-by-step tools to help companies assess their respiratory protection needs and establish a respiratory protection program. (Check out our blog discussing tips on how to implement and successfully document a respiratory program generally.) Again, the state of Washington does provide guidance about respiratory air quality and odor controls that growers should take into account. You should check with your jurisdiction’s clean air regulations and agencies that issue rules to make sure you are in compliance and protecting your workers.

Additionally, safety eyewear and safety sun wear can help protect from sun, UV grow lamps, pesticides, other chemicals, and debris while cultivating, harvesting and processing. Gloves, protective clothing, and eye protection can help prevent injury while cultivating, as well as the harm that can result from contact with the plants and pesticides. Installing monitors for detection of dangerous levels of carbon dioxide and monoxide should also be a priority for indoor and hydroponic operations.

We encourage you to download our Tech Service Bulletin 249: Legal Cannabis Growing Operations, which discusses what types of PPE can be used to help protect from some of the most common the hazards.

Being proactive can help build a culture of safety and help workers be more productive and prevent injury. Contact our health and safety specialists today to learn how we can help you protect your workers.

*Note: Cannabis growing or use may not be legal in your jurisdiction; always follow all applicable laws and regulations.

Publisher’s Note: This blog has been updated since it was first published in April of 2017 to reflect the new jurisdictions that have legalized some form of cannabis. This is also reflected in the updated map and infographic that can be downloaded. Additional information concerning respiratory and odor controls from the State of Washington has been added to help provide guidance, but every jurisdiction may have different requirements, so please check before implementing any safety measures to make sure you are in compliance with local, state and federal regulations.

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