Lessons Learned from Cannabis Worker Training

Published Sept. 28, 2018

By Ed Rutkowski

In 2017, the Center for Health, Work and Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health teamed up with Colorado OSHA and other partners to offer two safety training courses for workers in the state’s marijuana industry. Five years earlier, Colorado had become the first state in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana use. State health authorities had seen firsthand how small-scale growers transformed almost overnight into large indoor operations; with little knowledge of occupational health and safety regulations, most of the new businesses struggled to provide basic workplace protections.

Prior to legalization, “these were people hiding in their basements with [ultraviolet] lights, trying not to get caught,” said the Center’s Joshua Scott, who spoke about the training courses at IOHA 2018 on Sept. 26. He added that some of the course participants had gone from a basement grow to a thousand employees in five years.”

Scott helped develop and deliver the training courses, which were based on guidance (PDF) created by the Colorado Marijuana Occupational Health and Safety Work Group, a coalition of health and safety experts. At IOHA 2018, Scott compared Colorado's marijuana growers to entrepreneurs in the booming microbrew industry, who face similar problems of scale as they try to turn a home-brewing hobby into a thriving business.

Because marijuana growers typically have little knowledge of occupational health and safety, even minimal training can make a big difference, especially since the growers themselves are receptive to the training, Scott said. The course developers were pleased by the turnout for their 2017 courses, which drew 182 participants, some from out of state. Participants ran the gamut of occupations in the marijuana industry: horticulturalists, growers, business owners, even retail workers.

The courses highlighted the many hazards at indoor marijuana grow facilities. Automated bud-trimming devices, if not properly guarded, present a risk of laceration. Workers use shears to prune marijuana plants, sometimes without wearing protective gloves. The long hours spent at pruning and other tasks present risks for repetitive motion injuries. The plants are tended under UV lights, which are a source of radiation. Personal protective equipment is scarce, and workers are at risk of dangerous exposures to pesticides if they don’t wear respirators. The do-it-yourself ethic many growers bring to their work presents additional dangers—Scott said he once saw a worker standing on a chair placed on top of a scaffold so he could reach a light bulb that needed to be changed. Electricity generators and other machines churn out carbon monoxide, a worrisome health hazard given that the grow facilities typically have poor ventilation.

“It’s hard for these folks to imagine what kind of ventilation is needed for a grow facility that’s [the size of] three football fields,” Scott said.

Pre- and post-course surveys showed that most participants had developed a new appreciation of the hazards of pesticides use and the importance of respiratory protection. More than 20 percent of course participants completed a six-month follow-up assessment, which demonstrated that they are “a group that continues to stay engaged,” Scott said.

With more states going down the path of marijuana legalization, Scott sees a continuing need for OHS professionals to become involved in the nascent industry.

“Regardless of our personal opinions of this industry, there are a lot of people working in it, and it’s going to double, triple, quadruple [in size],” Scott said. “It’s a group we owe some attention to.”

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist.