Colorado's Marijuana Industry Must Follow Worker Safety Rules

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Colorado's booming marijuana industry has created new jobs as well as unique occupational safety and health issues, which the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has recently addressed.

Colorado voters approved the use of medical marijuana in 2000, and recreational use got the green light in 2012. "For so long this industry has been left to its own devices," said Danielle Urban, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Denver. The state's Guide to Worker Safety and Health in the Marijuana Industry makes it clear that federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations and requirements apply to this industry, she said.

The marijuana industry touches just about every area of occupational safety and health, said Matthew Linton, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Denver. There are potential agricultural, electrical and hazardous material issues, to name a few.

Linton noted that most of the plant-growing in Colorado is being done indoors in large warehouses that use massive amounts of electricity. The risk of electrical shock and injury can be an issue when dealing with temporary wiring (like extension cords), missing breakers, or the use of electricity in high humidity and watering areas, according to the state's guide.

The document identifies the types of hazards that are applicable to the industry and points to the relevant safety rules employers must follow, Linton said. He described it as a great survey document that can provide employers with the initial blueprint of the issues they need to be aware of and the possible rules that apply to their workplaces.

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Determine Regulatory Requirements for Safety]

New Jobs, Similar Hazards

The state's workplace safety guide doesn't establish any new rules, but it discusses how existing federal and state regulations apply to the marijuana industry and how employers can roll out best practices for their businesses.

"While many studies have focused on health outcomes and public safety issues, little attention has been focused on occupational safety and health associated with this industry," according to the guide.

The document identifies some marijuana-related jobs that easily translate to jobs in other industries, such as cultivators, trimmers, laboratory technicians and administrative professionals. Other job roles are more unique, like the extraction technicians who remove concentrates from the plants and the edible producers who cook, bake and package marijuana-infused products.

The guide identifies the hazards associated with these jobs. For example, an edible producer may be likely to be exposed to chemicals, burns and noise.

The document is a way to show employers how to consider the health and safety issues that may arise in their workplaces, Linton said. Agricultural workers will have certain risks, while cash handlers, laboratory workers and office employees will have others. "In some industries, employers face one of these risk areas, whereas employers in the marijuana industry face them all," he added.

One notable area of concern identified in the guide is mold exposure, Urban said. The guide says that the high humidity level needed to produce marijuana can cause mold growth.

"Mold can be very damaging to a worker's health," Urban said. Employers should ensure people are wearing respirators when necessary. They also need to understand that workers must undergo a medical assessment to make sure their health permits respirator use.

Linton noted that mold exposure can affect people many years down the line. "Are we going to see 10 to 20 years from now that people are developing respiratory issues because they were exposed to certain types of mold?"

That could be costly for employers if they are found liable. "If workers aren't wearing the proper [personal protective equipment], there's a real exposure risk," Linton said.

Workplace Violence

Another issue for the marijuana industry is the potential for workplace violence. "Employees may be handling large amounts of cash and product," Linton said.

This could especially be an issue at closing time or for drivers who are transporting marijuana across the state, Urban noted. "A driver may be transporting product to a small mountain town on isolated roads at the same time every week—this could be a problem."

This might not be a unique issue—banks and beverage companies have to deal with this, too—but employers in the marijuana industry also need to be thinking about it, she added.
"Employers are encouraged to conduct an assessment of the workplace to find existing or potential hazards for workplace violence," the guide says. "By assessing worksites, employers can identify methods for reducing the likelihood of incidents occurring."

Key Takeaways

When legal marijuana production began in Colorado, there wasn't a model for startups, Urban said. The companies were starting at the same time, so they were really pioneers in the industry and weren't necessarily coming into the field with an agricultural background.

She said there were a lot of "mom and pop" shops, and business owners may not have been aware of the employment and safety laws that they needed to follow.

"There are many more sophisticated operations now than there were years ago, but there are still businesses that may not anticipate workplace injuries until they happen," she added.

Marijuana use is still illegal at the federal level, but Linton said related businesses should follow OSHA rules just like employers in any other industry would.

"Get your ducks in a row," he said. "You don't want to be the employer that has a workplace accident in the news and have people asking why you didn't comply with this guidance."

 

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