Workplace and Product Safety Undergoing Deepening Scrutiny

Published on: 
Cannabis Science and Technology, March/April 2024, Volume 7, Issue 2
Pages: 22-25

Columns | <b>Tech Innovations</b>

With the cannabis industry expanding, David Hodes looks into two areas of safety concerns with cannabis processing, which include new ways to understand health issues of cannabis workers and new consumer safety alerts about cannabis products with higher THC percentages.

Safety efforts now include robots, mental health assessments, and research on levels of THC intoxication.

The natural maturing of a new cash crop with medicinal and intoxicating properties such as cannabis has revealed discoveries and raised questions about not only how to be more efficient in growing and processing a safer cannabis product, but also about creating a safer workplace.

Reports about incidences and corrective actions are piling up in the cannabis industry.

For example, in July 2022, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited (1) PharmaCann Inc. (2) for workplace hazards (blocked exits, an unstable conveyor system) at a greenhouse in Montgomery, New York, and fined the company $15,000.

The “Tech Innovations” October 2023 column (3), discussed a tragic death related to cannabis processing, when an employee who was packaging ground cannabis into pre-rolls at a Trulieve dispensary in Holyoke, Massachusetts, suffered an asthma attack and later died in the hospital due to airborne cannabis dust released during processing operations.

Now the question facing this evolving industry is how to deal with, or correct, these and other safety aspects of agriculture production of cannabis.

The difference with cannabis is that, as a controlled substance, federal guardrails regarding safe production and worker safety are either missing or lacking the teeth of true enforcement. When it comes to stringent federal government oversight from such safety organizations as OSHA, there has been a growing and dangerous disconnect.

This installment of “Tech Innovations” column will discuss two areas of safety concerns with cannabis processing and the corrective measures being considered: new ways to understand both physical and mental health issues of cannabis workers, and new consumer safety alerts about cannabis products with higher tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) percentages.

A Research/Regulation Disconnect

Cannabis and all the issues of growing and processing it are still relatively new to researchers digging into worker safety issues. But these issues trend along the lines of traditional agriculture research, for good or bad, as researchers begin to take a closer look.

One of those researchers is Cynthia Ellwood, an occupational and environmental health researcher, and one of the contributing authors for a guide to work safety and health in the cannabis industry published by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (4).

She told us that, just like in any other agriculture pursuits where there is organic-based material and microorganisms related to it, there’s no occupational exposure limits, either regulated by the federal or state governments, on how much of these elements employees can be exposed to. “As a result of that, it’s not one of those things that people always study and look at,” Ellwood said. “Because if you try to do an evaluation or something like that, and get down to the point where you’re actually going to try and characterize inhalation type exposure risks, for example, there’s nothing to compare it to that would indicate what level of risks the employees have been exposed to. So, I think that’s probably one of the largest missing elements, not just in the cannabis industry, but in agricultural on a more wider basis.”

An article in the American Bar Association publication (5) appeared to concur with Ellwood, reminding cannabis business owners that there is no established permissible exposure levels OSHA regulators use to determine exposure to particulates involved in the cultivation and processing of cannabis “…because the exact scientific or medical correlation between cannabis dust and certain health risks, like asthma, is unknown.”

Coming into play here is a “still-must-comply-with-federal-law” contradiction that causes confusion in the industry. Even though cannabis is still federally illegal, it must comply with the so-called “general duty clause” of OSHA (6), which states that each employer shall “furnish to each of his employees a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

Ellwood mentioned that whether it’s an industry that has been around a long time, or whether it’s a newer industry like the cannabis industry with sometimes confusing safety messaging, she and others in the health and safety field serve as advocates for total worker health. “If the resources aren’t available, then business owners and employers, employees, maybe even union representatives don’t have the proper information to be able to improve the state of health and safety in their place of business,” Ellwood explained. “Whether it’s the cannabis industry or whether someone cuts lawns for a living or these are people who build cars, it doesn’t really matter. I want all of them to be able to work their entire working lifetime and retire and play with their grandchildren. It’s a pretty simple ask. But it’s a hard goal to achieve. The more resources that are available, the easier it will be for that goal to occur.”

Robots to the Rescue

One answer to the question of making a safer work environment comes from Nohtal Partansky, an ex-NASA-JPL engineer who co-founded Sorting Robotics located in Van Nuys, California (7), developing robotic solutions for cannabis producers and vertically integrated businesses.

Partansky and his team have designed four robot units for processing cannabis: Jiko, an automated pre-roll infusion robot;Jiko +, a donut-style pre-roll infusion robot; Omni, a desktop vape cartridge filling machine; and Stardust, an automated pre-roll dusting robot.

“I used to run a cannabis company, and saw the dust problem firsthand,” Partansky said. Before he started taking safety precautions at his company in 2020, he had issues with cannabis dust on his skin. “I scratched it, and I ended up getting these crazy bumps,” he said. “It turned out that I had scratched cannabis dust into my pores, and then they got infected.”

In the facility at the time, the cannabis dust got everywhere, Partansky commented. “We had to put in filters into the main packing area just because we’re concerned about people breathing in all that dust. But we also made it a requirement for all of our operators to wear masks. Now we think about the process a lot when we designed the (Stardust) machine. That robot is a solution to the problem, especially with kief.”

Partansky explained that Stardust operates in two ways. The first phase is to spray a type of glitter glue on the outside of the joint. The joint with glitter glue then goes into a cotton candy-like machine containing kief or tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) powder. “Both of those processes create atomized material,” he said.

When you spray distillate, you have to atomize it, and create the tiny particles so that they come out and attach to the joint. “That’s a risk, right? If you have people that are spraying outside an enclosure kind of machine, then you’re going to get particulates all over the place,” Partansky mentioned.


He said that he has been in facilities where they’re spraying kief or some other substance on the flower to create an infused joint. “On the infused-joint side, if people don’t use injection, the other way they do it is through grinding up the flower, and putting it in like a cement mixer device, and then spraying it down,” Partansky explained. “When you do that, you’re literally spraying atomized distillate into a bucket. All of the extra materials are flying out and getting into the air and getting into the eyes and the nose of the operator. I walked into one facility and went by the room where they’re spraying the flower with distillate. I was just exposed to it for a few minutes, and I immediately started coughing.”

With Sorting Robotics Stardust machine, he explained that they pull a vacuum from the whole environment that’s enclosed inside the machine and run it through a capture mechanism that captures any piece of distillate or ground flower, so the operator doesn’t experience product losses. “We’re very sensitive to making sure that our machines don’t make things worse for the operators,” Partansky said. “We want it to make it better.”

The company is working on linking together the various machines into a whole processing system. “So instead of having to use one machine and then gather up all the joints and then take it to a different machine, they can just talk to each other,” he said. “Then a robotic arm makes a handoff between them. Our goal for this year is to stitch together all the pieces of the pre-roll production value chain and make a fully automated line. So, by the end of this year, we should have all of our individual products stitched together.”

Worker Mental Health Issues

Besides the physical problems facing cannabis process workers are issues related to the mental well-being of the worker.

In the study, “Stress, Mental Health, and Coping Among Workers in the Northern California Cannabis Industry: A Qualitative Descriptive Analysis”, published in the journal New Solutions (8), researchers released results of a qualitative study based on focus group discussions and key informant interviews “to understand cannabis workers’ experiences, knowledge, and perceptions of occupational hazards. Participants reported sources of stress including production pressure and isolation, and mental health outcomes such as depression and mental fatigue.”

The most common sources of stress reported by seasonal trimmers were production pressure and boredom from performing the same task for long shifts many days in a row, according to the study (8).

Marc Schenker, professor emeritus of Public Health Sciences and Medicine at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine (Sacramento, California) (9), was one of the four researchers who conducted the study. He shared with us that in California, undocumented immigrants, or “trimmigrants”, make up the majority of the workforce inside a cannabis processing facility. They work long hours, often seven days a week, with limited rest breaks. “Stress is greater on them. Reports of underpayment are common. Physical violence is reported to be common. And there are all kinds of abuses that don’t exist in organized labor environments,” Schenker said. “The common pattern is to work for two or three months to make enough money to survive for the year. But it takes a big mental toll on them.”

These trimmers are seasonal workers working long hours for piece-rate pay (paid a fixed amount per unit produced, in this case per pound of trimmed cannabis) in isolated and substandard working and living conditions. Budtenders and delivery drivers are also exposed to the stressors associated with low-wage, public-facing work.

Theft and robbery at cannabis businesses are reported frequently, according to the study (8), adding to the stress factor. “In addition to selling a valuable product, many businesses are forced to deal entirely in cash due to banking restrictions caused by the federally illegal status of cannabis,” Schenker explained. “All cannabis workers experience an elevated risk of violence due to the valuable product and large amounts of cash on site. Job stress is likely to be associated with all these hazards and is a significant occupational health risk.”

One comment from a participant in the study’s focus group spelled out the stresses of the job (8): “You never see the natural light because you finish working at midnight. The door is always closed so you don’t have a view, you just have the people who are working with you in that room. You can go crazy looking at the same person and doing the same thing. You start to forget if you’re working for two days or for two weeks.”

Some budtenders found out that they were expected to act as sort of psychological therapists and were not prepared for that to be part of their job. Researchers discovered that budtenders were often tasked with selling the best strain of cannabis for each customer’s needs, because different cannabis strains are thought to provide different desirable effects. According to the study (8), as a result, they often hear about traumatic life experiences and illnesses, and reported feeling responsible for providing a positive experience for the customer. “Workers had not received training on interacting with customers who solicited these informal but quasi-therapeutic interactions,” according to the study (8).

Schenker discussed that California has not been proactive in addressing these cannabis worker issues in part because of a shortage of occupational health regulators and investigators, but also because the industry is inherently difficult to study. It’s federally illegal and tends to be about agriculture operations widely dispersed in rural locations. “The research doesn’t change the environment, and the work environment, the workers and their reality, and fundamental risks that exists,” Schenker commented. “More is needed, such as advocacy and a culture shift of how the workers are treated.”

Product Safety: A Moving Target

There are over 88 known fungal species affecting cannabis plants at all growth stages, according to an Israeli study (10), with some posing direct human health hazards. Air samples from the lungs of workers from cannabis farms have contained a significantly higher than normal concentration of fungal microorganisms, according to the study.

The study found that understanding the seasonal appearance of fungal pathogens may contribute significantly in managing plant diseases by planning the growth cycle so that harvest is done before optimal conditions for the appearance of the major pathogens. That management detail is one example of a deeper dive into proactive worker safety.

But aside from the plant pathogen issues, more pressure is being applied to address whether cannabis products with higher levels of THC levels are really safe for the consumer.

A proposal (11) by researchers at University of Southern California Center for Health Policy and Economics (Los Angeles, California) named four policy tools they said merits attention or consideration: capping potency by limiting THC; instituting sales limits based on potency and total THC purchased across products; designing a tax structure based on potency of products and implementing seed-to-sale data-tracking systems; and compliance checks in a manner that enables regulation of products, testing sites, distributors and retailers.

Another study indicates that this proposal may be premature and illustrates the tricky nature of trying to regulate and control the effects of cannabis on different consumers.

“To our knowledge, there are virtually no data on the relative risks associated with use of these higher-strength products,” a study (12) published by the Journal of American Medical Association reported.

Researchers determined that, despite higher THC exposure, concentrate users did not show greater short-term subjective, cognitive, or balance impairment than flower users.

“Given the marked differences in THC blood levels between concentrate and flower users, it is interesting that the self-reported levels of intoxication were not significantly different,” researchers concluded (12). “In general, across most cognitive measures, acute performance changes following cannabis use were minimal.”

As usual in this developing industry with a complicated plant, the study called for more research on the topic.


Working withnewtools and methods of processing an intoxicating and scientifically confounding product to make it safer for both workers and consumers is not always top of the agenda for cannabis business owners—at least not at this moment of the cannabis industry.

“I think a lot of our customers are more concerned about the company surviving,” Partansky expressed. “So, we try to say (our robots) are a value-add. There’s a lot of things that are value-adds for customers, like the safety features. But that doesn’t improve the bottom line per se. I think mostly because the health risks are just not at top of mind for a lot of operators. I think it’s slowly becoming a very important thing. I think it’s not quite there. It’s not the priority for people especially with industry having so much price compression.”

“I don’t expect people to provide a beautiful working environment when everybody is struggling,” Partansky said. “I’m sure you could take safety a bit more seriously, but most of the opportunities are not like that. They are mom and pop operations, with under 25 employees or under 50 employees, and they are trying to figure out how to navigate the situation as best as they can.”


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  12. Bidwell, C.; Ellingson, J.; Karoly, H.; et al. Association of Naturalistic Administration of Cannabis Flower and Concentrates With Intoxication and Impairment. JAMA Psychiatry. 2020; 77(8): pp 787-796. DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.0927.

About the Columnist

David Hodes has written for many cannabis publications, and organized or moderated sessions at national and international cannabis trade shows. He was voted the 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access, the world’s largest medical cannabis advocacy organization.

How to Cite This Article

Hodes, D., Workplace and Product Safety Undergoing Deepening Scrutiny, Cannabis Science and Technology20237(2), 22-25.