Written by: Joe Mangiardi, NES, Inc.
The marijuana industry has come a long way toward establishing its legitimacy, but there is still more work to be done to ensure the health and safety of industry workers.
Lack of Marijuana Industry Health and Safety Training
Results of a study of cannabis workers in Colorado have exposed a critical need for the establishment and implementation of marijuana industry health and safety training, policies, and procedures to help protect employees from workplace hazards.
The study was originally presented in a 2017 report entitled Work and Well-Being in the Colorado Cannabis Industry (Report) and subsequently in an American Journal of Industrial Medicine article on March 14, 2018 with the title An Overview of Health and Safety in the Colorado Cannabis Industry. These documents represent the work of graduate student Kevin Walters, M.S. and Assistant Professor of Psychology Gwenith Fisher, Ph.D of Colorado State University. For the study, data were compiled from anonymous online surveys completed in 2015 by 214 Colorado marijuana industry workers. Survey questions asked about participants’ occupations, job duties, marijuana and tobacco use, personal health, and assessments of workplace conditions. Citing the importance of understanding marijuana industry health and safety, the abstract for the American Journal of Industrial Medicine article phrases the impetus behind the research as follows:
“Although little published research exists, workers may be exposed to biological, chemical, and physical hazards. This study investigated the Colorado cannabis industry workforce and both physical and psychosocial hazards to worker health and safety. . . . Colorado cannabis workers were generally job secure and valued safety. However, they regularly consumed cannabis, expressed low concerns about workplace hazards, reported some occupational injuries and exposures, and reported inconsistent training practices. Working in the cannabis industry is associated with positive outcomes for workers and their organizations, but there is an imminent need to establish formal health and safety training to implement best practices.”
The marijuana industry in Colorado and across the U.S. (including California) has grown significantly in the past several years, and it is projected to continue growing as more states relax or repeal laws restricting cannabis consumption and/or possession; as such, the need for training programs customized to marijuana industry needs will continue to increase. The goal of the study was to shed a light on the state of marijuana industry health and safety, but as Walters puts it, “We don’t want our work to be the end. We’re just starting to build a conversation” (from MedicalXpress article Colorado Cannabis Workers are Happy, But Need Better Safety Training: Study).
Marijuana Industry Health and Safety: The Findings
The workers who participated in the survey answered questions on a range of issues, from pesticide exposure to ergonomics complications accompanying long hours trimming plants to eye irritation and questionable air quality, and some expressed concern about working at a cash-only business (fear of robbery). In general, however, those surveyed shared a strong sense of comradery and expressed consistent positivity when rating job satisfaction.
The chief caveat to these reports of happy work environments is that little to no effort was being made by employers regarding health and safety training. Often employees had received no safety training whatsoever (23%), and for those who did receive training, that training varied considerably in terms of duration, scope, and frequency. Where a score of 1 indicates a very weak safety climate and 5 indicates a very strong safety climate, marijuana industry workers’ responses averaged 3.7. According to the Report, “Cannabis industry workers generally felt like their businesses have strong safety policies, procedures, and practices. They felt strongly that management values their safety, but less strongly about the extent of health and safety training at work.”
Survey participants were asked about general health symptoms. Out of the 187 who responded, 54% experienced back pain, 28% experienced discomfort in the hands, wrists, or fingers (pain, burning, stiffness, numbness, tingling, etc.), and 23% reported knee pain. Other ailments reported included hip joint pain and pain in other joints including painful swelling of joints. Thirty-four percent reported experiencing none of these symptoms.
The survey did address the topic of injuries, but as participants were asked if either on- or off-the-job injuries had been sustained, some of the results might be interpreted as inconclusive. Ten workers reported sustaining injuries within a three-month period prior to participating in the survey. Of these, one individual suffered a crushing/mangling injury to the neck from being hit by a forklift, one had an injury to the right thumb joint resulting from constantly opening jars of cannabis, and another sustained an eye laceration caused by the corner of a laminated sign. Other injuries reported were not associated with definitive causes.
Workers expressed the most concern when it came to ergonomic issues and air quality, but based on the data collected, exposure to pesticides should be considered a primary health and safety concern. Sixty-six percent of those who responded on this topic (187) had never experienced any side effects from the handling of pesticides. However, 18% reported skin irritation, 14% noted headache/dizziness, and 13% experienced eye irritation. Others linked difficulty breathing and chest discomfort with exposure to pesticides. Interpreted together or separately, these numbers would cause immediate alarm to conscientious employers, safety managers, and regulatory agents across all industries.
Working conditions in the marijuana industry can often be cramped, with ergonomics and air quality ranking as top employee concerns.
Interestingly, though consisting largely of young individuals (66% under 30 years of age), Colorado marijuana industry workers rated their own health well below the level normally associated with that age group: using a scale in which 1 was a rating of poor, 2 was fair, and 5 was excellent, the average of responses was 2.3. Due to the high proportion of employees (about two-thirds) who held medical marijuana cards, the researchers theorized that many came into the occupation with preexisting health conditions. However, this assessment is difficult to confirm without more detailed investigation; medical marijuana cards have historically not been difficult to obtain, and those who habitually consumed marijuana for recreational use prior to its legalization would have been highly incentivized to pursue a legal means of procurement and consumption. Further clouding interpretive clarity, 58% of those cardholders had had their cards for less than two years. Such a correlative ambiguity suggests that an informed and nuanced approach will have to be taken in assessing and monitoring trends in marijuana industry worker health.
Adding to the health and safety concerns is the fact that 95% of workers surveyed used marijuana, 78% of whom on at least a daily basis, and many did so before and during work shifts. According to Westword article Study: Too Many Cannabis Industry Employees Get High at Work, if it is determined that a state-licensed marijuana business allows marijuana consumption on its premises, disciplinary action, up to and including loss of license, could result (the article makes sure to note that it is not mentioned whether the marijuana consumption recorded in the Report takes place on company property). As more research is done into the question of worker safety when (or when recently) under the influence of marijuana across all industries, workplace policies will have to be adjusted accordingly.
Marijuana Industry Health and Safety: Conclusion and Recommendations
The Report provides a solid starting point for the endeavor of precisely ascertaining and delineating key health and safety areas of concern. Marijuana industry businesses should work to develop and implement formal health and safety programs, and these programs should be periodically re-evaluated and assessed for completeness and effectiveness.
As previously mentioned, the study determined that marijuana industry employers need to do significantly better at providing health and safety training to their employees. Affected employers should—and in many cases must, based on applicable regulations—provide relevant training to all employees. The content of training programs is recommended to span a wide range of topics but should be focused primarily on the hazards specific to the tasks employees are expected to perform. For the marijuana industry, some of these topics include:
- Personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Ergonomic issues pertaining to working in awkward positions and cramped environments
- Dermal/respiratory protection
- Hearing conservation (typically due to listening to music for long periods of time)
- Use of scissors/trimmers
- Laboratory safety
- Emergency preparedness (robbery or other emergencies)
The Report also recommends general health and safety training (i.e., training on topics that tend to apply to any business) on topics such as injury and illness prevention, lockout/tagout, OSHA recordkeeping, and the prevention of slips, trips, and falls.
Marijuana industry employees whose job duties include handling scissors/shears should be trained to use proper PPE.
The researchers recommend marijuana industry employers begin by conducting a training needs analysis/assessment to determine who needs training and what the training topics should be. It is always important to craft training in line with the particular knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to safely perform job duties while bearing in mind the knowledge, skills, and abilities employees already possess. Employees should attend training soon after hire, and refresher training should be provided on regular intervals thereafter. For maximum effectiveness, it is beneficial to communicate the necessity of the training and to involve all of the company’s employees in the training process.
(For the entire list of recommended training topics and strategies, see the Report.)
NES Marijuana Industry Health and Safety Training
Legal marijuana grow operations and dispensaries in California and beyond (on a state-by-state basis) will now be treated like any other regulated business: subject to inspection and citation by state officials.
NES has adapted existing training programs in recognition of this changing climate. We have modified our law enforcement marijuana training program to create a Marijuana Grow Hazards Safety Training for Regulators course to help educate inspectors on marijuana industry health and safety hazards that could potentially be encountered during site visits. We have also developed a marijuana-oriented version of our HAZWOPER training program to accommodate personnel who are directly impacted by marijuana industry operations.
The Marijuana Grow Hazards Safety Training for Regulators course covers the hazards that regulatory agency personnel may encounter when working in and around indoor/outdoor marijuana grow and extraction operations.
For more information about our marijuana industry health and safety training capabilities, please contact us at 916-353-2360 / 800-637-2384 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Colorado State University Article: Keeping Cannabis Workers Safe, Healthy and Happy
2017 Colorado State University Report: Work and Well-Being in the Colorado Cannabis Industry
American Journal of Industrial Medicine Article: An Overview of Health and Safety in the Colorado Cannabis Industry
MedicalXpress Article: Colorado Cannabis Workers are Happy, But Need Better Safety Training: Study
Westword Article: Study: Too Many Cannabis Industry Employees Get High at Work