Cultivators of cannabis use standardized methods to keep their plants healthy, safe, and of top quality. After all, cannabis is a big money crop, so cultivators want to make sure they are giving only the best to their plants. However, do cultivators pay the same amount of attention to safety when it comes to their employees? In most cases, they do, usually by using standardized personal protective equipment (PPE).

Good PPE can protect cannabis employees from a variety of on-the-job hazards, such as chemical burns and exposure, falls, equipment-related injuries, and other common things that can potentially hurt an employee at work in this industry. Most cannabis production facilities have a "safety employee," whose job it is to protect other employees on the job, while also making sure the facility complies with state and federal laws regarding workplace safety. If a company does not have such an employee on staff, they should. A safety employee is a huge asset and protector from liability for any cannabis company.

Employee Safety in the Cannabis Industry--Out of the Headlines, for Now

You won't read much about cannabis industry employee safety, at least not yet. Right now, the national dialogue is focused around whether or not cannabis should be legal, and if it is legal, then whether it should be legal for medicinal or recreational purposes, or both. The merits of cannabis are the primary point of discussion right now. This means the safety of those working in the industry is often forgotten in these discussions. Only those within the industry itself are paying this important topic any attention, and even then, not everyone does. However, everyone should.

The legal cannabis industry is expected to bring in more than $24 billion by 2025, and will employ more than a quarter of a million workers by 2020. This is a huge business that seems poised to continue to boom for the near future at least, maybe longer. It may be booming for the foreseeable future. Those current and future employees of the cannabis industry are exposed to a variety of risks at work, many of which are similar to the risks faced by employees in manufacturing and agriculture. Risks include hazards of biological, physical, and chemical natures. Some common hazards are loud noises that can damage hearing, working in small spaces with dangerous chemicals or tools, using pressurized equipment, and exposure to UV light.

Potential Hazards Cannabis Employees Face on the Job

What are some of the particular types of on-the-job hazards that cannabis employees face?

Chemical hazards come in the form of exposure to such things as:

  • Fertilizers
  • Plant nutrients
  • Fungicides (to reduce the growth of mold on plants)
  • Pesticides (to keep insects off of plants)
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Gasoline or other fuels (to power machinery)

Exposure to these things can result in rashes, respiratory irritation, chemical burns, skin irritation, and other similar things.

Biological hazards come in the form of such things as:

  • The presence of mold, which can cause allergic reactions, allergy responses, or other negative health effects.
  • Exposure to cannabis resin, which can cause allergic skin reactions such as swollen eyes and itching on the skin in some employees.

Physical hazards present to employees in the cannabis industry include:

  • Injuries caused by using farming or processing equipment.
  • Injuries from malfunctioning pressurized equipment, or the improper use of it.
  • Exposure to flammable chemicals that employees may not wash off in a timely manner, which can cause a variety of injuries in different situations.
  • Exposure to cleaning chemicals, which can cause respiratory irritation, skin irritation, or other allergic reactions.
  • Exposure to harsh outdoor conditions that could result in frostbite, burns, explosions, bug bites, rashes, and other, similar things.

How to Best Protect Cannabis Employees

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates that businesses of all kinds give their employees workplaces that are as hazard-free as possible. This means that employers must develop or introduce safety controls based on the pre-approved safety hierarchy provided by OSHA. Once the basic OSHA steps have been introduced to the workplace, that employer has fulfilled its minimum requirement of a commitment to safety for its employees. However, cannabis employers can take it a step further by providing personal protection equipment. If a risk of injury is still present at the workplace, even after OSHA regulations are implemented, then PPE is a requirement. Even if it isn't, cannabis employers can create a happier, safer, more comfortable, and more secure workplace for their employees by using it. This increases employee satisfaction with their jobs, which in turn increases employee retention and reduces turnover. This makes PPE a good investment for cannabis employers.

Some PPE that can be beneficial to cannabis employees is protective clothing. This clothing should have two or more protective layers, with each layer designed to protect against a potential workplace hazard; the best PPE clothing is as comfortable as it is safe. At a minimum, protective clothing should shield cannabis workers from particulates, sprays, and light splashes. Ideally, it will do more. The higher quality protective clothing that is used, the more protections and more comfort it will offer cannabis employees.

Protective clothing can include gloves, hats, socks, shoes, and even face guards, in addition to pants and shirts (which should be long-legged and long-sleeved for the best, most comprehensive protection. It all depends on the particular needs of each employer, and how much they are willing to invest to protect their employees to the best of their ability.

The Importance of Protective Clothing in the Cannabis Industry, and its Various Roles at Work

The protective clothing that cannabis employees should be using not only protects them, it also protects the plants with which they work. This is crucial, because cannabis is meant for human consumption. It must, therefore, be of the highest cleanliness and decontamination standards. Protective clothing insures that human workers do not contaminate the plants with their bodily fluids, skin flaking, hair shedding, fingernail dirt, and other bodily debris. This allows cannabis companies to put out high quality products that meet the highest purity and safety standards. This makes the company more profitable, and secures its survival in the long-term, as it exceeds other companies in its quality and purity standards. PPE is good for business from both an employee and product perspective.

While OSHA provides federal safety standards that everyone must follow, each state has its own, individual safety regulations, as well. Some states even have safety regulations that are stricter than OSHA rules, and so override them. Cannabis employers should be sure to reference and become familiar with both before implementing their own plant and employee safety rules. It is important that their in-house rules be in alignment with these standards, and, ideally, surpass them.

In general, employers should assess what hazards to workers exist on-site, and eliminate them prior to implementing a PPE program. If the hazards cannot be eliminated, then PPE must be integrated into the workplace with those hazards in mind. Federal and state regulations for safety generally agree that PPE is only to be used as a last resort if the workplace hazards cannot be eliminated. However, smart cannabis employers will implement both state and federal safety regulations, as well as PPE, in addition to hazard elimination. This makes sure all of their bases are covered in terms of worker and plant safety, as well as minimizes their liability risks.

Additional PPE equipment that is useful to go along with protective clothing for cannabis workers includes such things as:

  • Respirators when working with chemicals or pesticides.
  • Slip-resistant shoes or shoe covers, which should be work in areas where the floor is usually wet.
  • Protective sleeves, to avoid skin sensitivity from exposure to terpenes when it comes time to harvest the cannabis.

Training Employees in the Use of PPE

Cannabis employers can bring in all the PPE they desire, but it will not do any good in keeping employees safer on the job if those employees are not trained in its proper use. In fact, employers can be fined by OSHA if they do not have a written safety plan, or if workers are not following it. Employees not adhering to a written protection plan is one of the top reasons for OSHA fines, when those safety plans pertain to OSHA regulations. If OSHA regulations require a workplace to have certain PPE available and for workers to be using it, because a particular hazard could not be eliminated, then those workers must use the equipment, and use it properly, or the employer will be held accountable with OSHA.

Therefore, training is essential to make sure cannabis workers know how to use and maintain PPE on the job. Ideally, this training in on-the-job safety should happen when an employee is new, and first starting the job, with regular company-wide reviews and drills at regular intervals later. Employers should be sure that all of their employees know how to use and maintain PPE and are doing it every time they come to work.

New updates to safety equipment and training should also happen if the way something is done in a company changes, or if new equipment is purchased.

Once an employee is fully trained on the use and maintenance of PPE within the company, they must be held responsible for adhering to these guidelines. They also need to know why those guidelines are there. It helps ensure compliance tremendously if employees know the hazard or hazards that the PPE is protecting them against, and what could potentially happen to them if they do not use (or properly use) their PPE on the job. If employees do not know why a particular piece of PPE is required, they may not take its use and maintenance seriously, which means they may forget to wear it, or simply decide it is not necessary and not wear it at all. This leads to increased workplace injuries, and more liability for an employer.

Make PPE a Normal Part of Workplace Culture

The best way to ensure compliance is to make the use and maintenance of PPE by employees a normal part of workplace culture. This should begin at the job interview. Serious safety discussions, including expectations, should be had with anyone interviewing for a position. When someone is hired, training on PPE should begin their very first day on the job. Regular company-wide reviews and drills on the use and maintenance of PPE should be standard. And, employees should always know why they are using PPE.

When the use and maintenance of PPE is a normal and accepted part of workplace culture in the cannabis industry, it makes for safer, happier employees, and a more pure, high quality product. PPE is good for business in the cannabis industry either way you look at it. Invest in it, train your employees in it, and enjoy its reputation enhancement and financial benefits. It will be the smartest business decision you make.

International Enviroguard provides a range of innovative and affordable garments and accessories for the Cannabis Industry. Contact them today at (800) 345-5972 to learn more about their PPE solutions or to request a sample of its products.