The cannabis industry is considered a “moderate hazard” industry by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but real hazards exist in the form of pesticides, electricity and falls, according to Alex Hearding, owner and operator of Colorado-based Cultivate Solutions Consulting, a firm that helps cannabis facilities establish successful and compliant safety programs.
“This next level of occupational safety, procedures, compliance and regulation … is the next stage of legitimization for this industry,” Hearding says. “This is going to [allow] … people who care about their employees’ safety to help create a culture of safety within each company, but [also] in the industry as a whole.”
Cannabis business owners already have a staggering number of rules and regulations to follow, Hearding says, but employers who put their employees at risk send red flags to their partners and customers, so compliant safety programs are imperative to success.
Hearding is a certified Associate Safety Professional (ASP) and is working toward a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) designation. He has created a six-hour occupational safety and health training course for the cannabis industry that covers basic rules and regulations and offers safety certification. He is also working to publish a handbook that compiles these rules and regulations as a resource for industry professionals. Hearding assists with writing cannabis business applications, creates compliance and safety programs for cannabis operations, and conducts safety audits for Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED), the Colorado Department of Agriculture and OSHA.
“What this industry isn’t aware of is how to build a compliance safety program,” Hearding says. “‘Safety program’ is a big umbrella term, and what that means is the company does a hazard identification and assessment [and] they have proper injury … reporting.”
Here, Hearding outlines the required components of a cultivation facility’s employee safety program based on federal and state regulations and offers tips on how to implement a successful and compliant program.
1. OSHA and the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS)
The first step to understanding and implementing a compliant safety program is knowing which regulations you are required to follow. Colorado is an OSHA state, Hearding says, meaning that OSHA enforces its occupational safety and health rules. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 26 states have OSHA-approved state plans. For example, California has the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA). OSHA sets the baseline standards at the federal level for these programs, and a state program like Cal/OSHA must meet or exceed the federal standards. Business operators can visit OSHA’s website to determine if their state falls under OSHA standards or a different state-approved program.
In addition to OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also has a Worker Protection Standard (WPS), which outlines regulations and required training for agricultural workers, Hearding says. And although some EPA standards overlap the OSHA standards, some are different, so education is key.
2. Hazard Identification and Assessment
OSHA’s general duty clause states that each employer must provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees, Hearding notes, which can have serious implications for business owners.
“This is a big, big deal,” Hearding says. “This is like the blanket statement that covers basically every employer in this country. … What it means is that … you have to do hazard identification and assessment to some degree, and you have to train your employees in those hazards [and] health and safety program plans.”
3. Hazard Communication Program
OSHA requires companies to have a Hazardous Communication Program, Hearding says. This mandates that operators maintain a list of all hazardous chemicals, safety data sheets associated with those chemicals, proper labeling of all chemicals and employee training on how to use the chemicals. If you have more than 10 employees, the hazard communication plan must be in writing, Hearding says.
4. Emergency Action and Emergency Evacuation Plans
OSHA mandates that a facility have, at a minimum, an Emergency Evacuation Plan, Hearding says, which can fit into a larger Emergency Action Plan. The Emergency Evacuation Plan maps exit routes to take in the event of an emergency. Employees must be trained on the plan through regular fire drills, and one employee must be accountable for headcounts once everyone is evacuated. A more inclusive Emergency Action Plan includes workplace violence prevention and steps to take in the event of a live shooter.
5. Hearing Conservation Program
If a facility averages a noise level above 85 decibels during an employee’s eight-hour shift, the employer must implement a hearing conservation plan, Hearding says.
“That requires you to [administer] audiometric tests for your employees every year, and … within the first three or six months of them getting hired,” he says.
6. Personal Protective Equipment Assessment
The WPS outlines regulations on the use of respirators, according to Hearding. If an employee is using a pesticide that requires wearing a respirator, the employee is legally required to use one and the employer is legally required to have a Respiratory Protection Plan. A plan is also required if an employee voluntarily chooses to use a respirator.
The key elements of a Respiratory Protection Plan include a medical evaluation to determine if the employee is healthy enough to wear a respirator, proper fitting of the respirator and the proper storage and maintenance of the equipment. This includes knowing when cartridges reach the end of their usable life.
7. Training and Recordkeeping
OSHA and the WPS also outline requirements for employee training, pesticide storage, signage and recordkeeping, Hearding says.
While the WPS once allowed a grace period for worker training, updated regulations require that employees receive pesticide handler and agricultural training before they begin work.
“Essentially, everybody in the cultivation needs Worker Protection Standards training before they even enter the facility,” Hearding says.
OSHA gives more discretion on employee training to business owners, he adds.
In addition to training your employees on all the hazards and safety plans in the facility, Hearding says you must also document training, which is largely left to the employer’s discretion.
8. First Aid
It is helpful to have first aid readily available in your facility, Hearding says, which can sometimes fall into an Emergency Action Plan.
“As a safety professional, what I say is, depending on how close you are to a hospital and emergency responders, … you’re going to need … an AED—automatic electronic defibrillator—onsite and have somebody who knows how to use that,” he says. “I also tell people they must have at least one employee that is first aid certified and ideally first aid AED certified on site, every shift. … And that’s not a rule or a standard, that’s just good practice.”
9. Injury Reporting
OSHA requires that an employer report severe injuries and deaths that occur in the facility, Hearding says. A fatality must be reported within eight hours and amputations or a worker’s hospitalization must be reported within 24 hours, he notes.
“Reporting can be a big deal, too,” Hearding adds. “If you underreport or overreport, you can find yourself in a very difficult situation as an employer. Understanding how to report and having that reporting procedure in place before something happens is extremely important.”
10. OSHA Violations
If OSHA determines that a reported injury or death warrants a larger investigation, representatives will visit the facility, Hearding says. The first thing they will ask about, he adds, is whether employees are trained on facility hazards. If training is lacking, the business owner will be fined, which varies depending on the severity of the infraction.
“You want to be prepared for when OSHA comes in,” Hearding says. “You want … to have the correct training … [and] safety program plans, [and] … you’re going to want a hazardous communication plan. You want a minimum evacuation or emergency action plan.”
11. Implementing a Successful and Compliant Safety Program
The first step to implement a successful and compliant safety program is to educate yourself on the rules and regulations that apply to your business, Hearding stresses, and both OSHA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) are good starting points for references.
In addition, business owners should delegate responsibility within the company to a safety manager, officer, or even a safety committee.
“Every one of these health and safety program plans have a lot of responsibility associated with it,” Hearding says. “There’s a lot of people who have to train people, and then who documents this? Who trains the subcontractors on a hazardous communication plan when they come on the site, which is required? What I would do if I was an employer, I would delegate responsibility to one or many people on a safety committee and ideally hire a safety professional to come in and help you get things going.”
Top photo courtesy of Cultivate Solutions Consulting