The Jan. 2022 death of cannabis worker Lorna McMurrey brought to light a number of health hazards faced by workers in the legal weed industry. Leafly’s investigative series, Death of a Trimmer, documented the serious safety risks that often go unchecked in today’s industry.
NIOSH officials don’t care that you’re growing marijuana. They just want to keep workers safe.
Although marijuana remains a federally illegal Schedule I drug, there is an agency that’s eager to work with state-licensed cannabis companies to safeguard worker health.
NIOSH, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, is a sub-agency of the Centers for Disease Control. NIOSH officials don’t care if a state-legal company is growing federally-illegal cannabis.
And unlike OSHA, the federal government’s worker-safety enforcement arm, NIOSH is not in the business of penalizing noncompliance. They just want to help companies keep workers safe and healthy.
NIOSH ready to offer custom recommendations
NIOSH offers health hazard evaluations (HHE) at any and all cannabis processing facilities. These can be requested by a group of three or more employees, a union, or the business itself.
“If you have particular issues you have concerns about, we can address that.”
– James Couch, NIOSH
NIOSH experts will offer a set of customized recommendations pertaining to worker safety, either remotely (by having conversations with the relevant parties), or via an in-person visit or visits, during which they may collect samples.
“If they have particular issues they have concerns about, we can address that,” says James Couch, chief of NIOSH’s Hazard Evaluations and Technical Assistance Branch. Couch is one of the federal health experts who in 2015 visited the farm of Tom Lauerman, a longtime cannabis grower and industry leader, to learn and develop worker-safety protocols specific to cannabis.
“We basically work directly with [each] company to do it very individualized,” says Couch. That consultation results in a final report that’s publicly available on the NIOSH website. “And as a part of that, other folks in the industry can kind of take those guidelines and apply it to their own workplace.” The company’s name is not included in the public report, and no proprietary business information is revealed.
NIOSH experts worked with Farmer Tom Lauerman, pictured here, to gather data about the daily activities of a cannabis grower. (Photo: Patrick Bennett)
Regulators can call on NIOSH, too
NIOSH also makes its experts available to work with state agencies on cannabis health and safety protocols. Couch says his organization offers research that “walk through some of the different issues that we have found at facilities, and people can use those to implement different recommendations or guidelines into their own facilities, to hopefully reduce potential exposures.” The agency has worked with several states, he says, including Colorado and California.
NIOSH gets about three or four HHE requests from cannabis facilities or employees annually, which is substantially higher than in the past, pre-legalization. (In the past, most such requests had come from law enforcement organizations handling plants seized during investigations.)
But given the size of the industry, that’s still a tellingly low figure. Couch expects that number to increase over time, as more states legalize and more companies and workers become familiar with the HHE program.
Employees, unions, and cannabis producers can request an HHE here, and they can email HHERequestHelp@cdc.gov to ask questions or gather more information about the program. The agency’s final HHE reports can be searched and reviewed here.
Dave Howard is a national magazine editor and award-winning author. His most recent book is Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Agents With the World’s Most Charming Con Man.