A recent federal investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), along with state-conducted studies, have put the cannabis industry on notice to protect workers from a previously unrecognized potential hazard that is unique to their workplace: cannabis-aggravated asthma attacks and new onset cannabis-occupational asthma.
Under state and federal occupational safety and health laws, employers have a general duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace. That duty includes taking reasonable steps to keep the workplace free of any recognized hazards that might cause injuries or illnesses.
Earlier this year, OSHA initiated an investigation following the death of a Trulieve Holyoke Holdings LLC (Trulieve) worker that was deemed caused by inhaling ground cannabis dust.
OSHA fined Trulieve $35,219 and cited the company for serious violations including failure to compile a list of hazardous chemicals in the facility, obtain or develop a safety data sheet for hazardous chemicals, and provide employees with information and training about working with hazardous chemicals.
While, to date, OSHA’s enforcement actions have been limited to investigating Trulieve, this citation and hazard alert letter stand out because they suggest that the federal agency is treating cannabis as a hazardous material and subjecting cannabis employers to the same standards as those imposed on other federally legal businesses.
The OSHA hazard alert letter references two recent studies conducted by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) in 2020 and 2021, in which the state agency concluded that cannabis employees can and have experienced asthma attacks and related symptoms while performing a variety of cannabis-related jobs, including measuring, packaging, weighing, trimming, and otherwise processing commercial cannabis.
While these studies are limited in scope and further research is needed to fully understand the link between cannabis and asthma, they nonetheless highlight real, documented cases of asthma associated with cannabis-related work.
Cases of asthma attacks and new-onset asthma related to cannabis workplace exposures discussed in the studies suggest four key potential sources of asthma in the cannabis workplace:
- exposure to cannabis plants, “dust” caused by trimming or chopping dried cannabis, or smoke
- exposure to mold spores found on cannabis plant materials or containers
- exposure to various chemicals related to cannabis cultivation, processing, manufacture, and testing
- various combinations of the above.
Although cannabis employers may not yet be required to take specific measures to address work-related asthma, federal and state enforcing agencies might assert that this new information is enough to trigger some obligation on the part of employers to address this issue. As such, cannabis employers should identify and implement protective measures to reduce the risk of work-related asthma, and thus, avoid undue liabilities.
Some of the measures cannabis employers should take include:
- Informing employees of key asthma-related symptoms: teary eyes, sneezing, runny nose, eye irritation, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, tight chest
- Encouraging employees to report work-related asthma symptoms and to inform their healthcare provider if they experience such symptoms
- Implementing proper storage and processing procedures to avoid and identify mold growth
- Training employees to follow common dust-prevention measures, such as limiting processing tasks to enclosed rooms and ensuring that the workplace is properly ventilated
- Offering and encouraging employees to use of masks and gloves while handling with cannabis
Given the relatively nascent nature of the cannabis industry, cannabis employers will have to work with OSHA and their local enforcement authorities to identify the best ways to protect workers. As such, cannabis companies should take advantage of free services provided by employment enforcement agencies, such as free safety consultations and closely review and voluntarily implement recommended steps published by these agencies to help facilitate employee awareness of these risks associated with cannabis-related work — California, Colorado, and Washington are a few of the states that have released such guidelines.