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The Path Forward to a Safer Cannabis Industry

By Roshan Sebastian
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Two decades ago, California became the first state to legalize the medical use of cannabis. In 2021, medical use of cannabis is legal is 36 US states, and 17 states allow adult (‘recreational’) use. This trend of rapid legalization of the cannabis industry, while encouraging for industry growth, attracts more attention from federal regulatory bodies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Following a number of incidents and near misses, cannabis facilities have been increasingly frequented by OSHA visits, leading to a spike in citations and fines. A review of past OSHA citations reveals that the most common citations in the cannabis industry pertains to the employer’s lack of awareness about the hazardous nature of some operations and materials handled in the facility. This leads to an absence of a formal fire prevention plan, lack of proper hazardous chemical training, deficiency in proper documentation related to workplace injury and limited evaluation of required personal protective equipment (PPE).1

Cannabis industry data suggests that as of today, an incident is often followed by an OSHA inspection.  This naturally leads to the facility asking, ‘How do we prepare for an OSHA inspection and prevent future citations?’ The answer is a combination of identifying and mitigating risks in advance to avoid incidents and developing management systems that support the identification and risk mitigation efforts. Recent collaboration between cannabis business owners and organizations that write codes and standards have provided a framework in which to address the industry’s unique safety challenges to help reduce inherent risk to a facility. These codes and standards typically impact building construction/safety features and operation of the facility, however, additional risk mitigation can be drawn from the best practices already in place in process industries with similar hazards. These process industries have embraced process safety management (PSM) programs, which are built around principles flexible enough to be successfully implemented in the cannabis industry. Adopting such programs will serve the dual purpose of improving the overall safety record of the cannabis industry while enhancing company sustainability2 and help avoid events that lead to OSHA citations.

Figure 1. Risk Based Process Safety Management System

The risk-based process safety (RBPS) approach developed by the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS)3 may prove to be the most effective framework to implement PSM programs in the cannabis industry. Unlike the prescriptive regulatory approach provided by OSHA 29 CFR 1910.119, the RBPS methodology recognizes that not all hazards and risks are equal. By assessing risk, an organization can develop an effective management system that will prioritize allocation of limited resources to address the highest risks. Figure 1 shows the four foundational blocks (pillars) of RBPS and the various elements that make up each pillar.

If a cannabis business owner were to develop programs on each of the pillars presented in Figure 1, a comprehensive safety program would be in place that delivers sustainable risk reduction and mitigation.  However, as with any industry, the elements can be prioritized and tackled over time, starting with the elements having the most influence on the overall safety of a given facility. For example, a given facility may have great procedures and practices, but may not consistently train or instill employee knowledge or competency. Conversely, a facility may have personnel with great knowledge of hazards and risks, but are less developed with regard to documenting procedures, safe practices or training for new hires. Focusing available resources on the less developed elements will lead to an overall improvement in facility risk, leading to a lower likelihood of an incident and OSHA inspection.

Figure 2. Still image from surveillance video of an explosion at New MexiCann Natural Medicine in July 2015.

As with any industry, positive and negative public perception is driven by the media, which tends to focus on attention-grabbing headlines. The majority of past incidents reported in the news for the cannabis industry were explosions that occurred during the extraction process. One such extraction explosion, shown in Figure 2, occurred in July 2015 at the New MexiCann Natural Medicine facility in Santa Fe, New Mexico. With a focus on the ‘hazard identification and risk analysis’ pillar of RBPS, future such events may be mitigated.

Of the twenty RBPS elements, hazard identification and risk analysis (HIRA) stands out as having the highest potential for immediate impact on the cannabis industry’s safety profile.

HIRA is a collection of activities carried out through the life cycle of a facility to ensure that the risks to employees and the public are constantly monitored to be within an organization’s risk tolerance. The four major areas to analyze are:

  • Hazards – What are the possible deviations from the design intent?
  • Consequences – What are the worst possible consequences (or severity) if any deviation occurs?
  • Safeguards – Are there safeguards in the system to reduce the likelihood of this event?
  • Risk – Is the risk within the tolerable level? If not, what steps are needed to reduce the risk? (Severity X Likelihood = Risk)
Figure 3. A simplified HIRA flow chart for an Extraction Process

Let us consider an example case where the extraction process utilizes propane or butane as the extracting solvent. Figure 3 shows a simplified HIRA flow chart for the extraction process.

This systematic approach helps to understand the hazards and evaluate the associated risk. In addition, this approach highlights operator training as a crucial safeguard that can be credited to lower the overall risk of the extraction facility. Remember, lack of proper safety training (another element!) is one of the most cited OSHA violations in the cannabis industry. Another advantage to the HIRA methodology is that other safeguards that may be present can be identified, their effectiveness evaluated and additional risk reduction measures may be recognized. This will help business owners allocate their limited resources on the critical safeguards that provide the greatest risk reduction. Identifying, analyzing and solving for potential hazards is a key step in safe operation of a facility and avoiding OSHA citations.

While this article discusses only a single RBPS element, this example demonstrates how best practices from process industries can become a powerful tool for use in the cannabis industry. The “hazard identification and risk analysis” element of the RBPS approach is pertinent not only for the extraction process as discussed above, but also directly applicable to other aspects of the industry (e.g., dust explosions in harvesting and processing facilities, toxic impacts from fertilizers, hazards from the CO2 enrichment process in growing facilities, etc.).


References

  1. Top 5 OSHA Infractions for Cannabis Businesses
  2. The Business Case for Process Safety; 4th Edition; Center for Chemical Process Safety; 2018
  3. Guidelines for Risk Based Process Safety; Center for Chemical Process Safety: An AICHE Technology Alliance; published March 2007
  4. Video: Explosion rips through medical marijuana facility

Think Your Cannabis Business Complies with Temp and Part-Time Employment Regulations? You Might Be Surprised

By Stacy Bryant
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As a fast-growing cannabis company, ensuring your business stays compliant with regulatory agencies of all kinds—planning departments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and so on—is critical for survival. But is your business also compliant with temporary and part-time employment regulations? Violating these often-overlooked regulations can land your company in hot water at best and force you to shut your doors at worst. Here’s what you need to know about risks, regulations, compliance issues and more.

The 30,000-Foot View: Part-Time and Temporary Employees 

Cannabis has proven itself to be a high-turnover industry. But in the ever-shifting, post-COVID landscape, many cannabis employers are seeing the financial and logistical benefits of hiring part-time and temporary workers.

Though the terms “part-time” and “temporary” are sometimes used interchangeably, the fact is, there are legal differences in the definitions of part-time versus temporary work. For starters, temporary employees must work for less than a year at a specific organization, and their work must have a defined end date. Temporary employees, or “temps,” often fill vacant roles in a temporary capacity, such as roles previously occupied by someone on parental leave.

Many full-time employees in the cultivation space are defined as “agricultural workers”

Part-time employees, on the other hand, can work indefinitely for a company—but they must work less than 40 hours per week. And, side note, if a part-time employee works more than 1,000 hours in a calendar year, they could be eligible for retirement benefits—so hiring managers, bear that in mind.

For employers, there are some tangible benefits in hiring part-time or temporary workers. For starters, there are often fewer upfront costs associated with hiring part-time workers (like workers’ compensation and healthcare). Establishing a strong part-time and temp employment strategy also allows for employers to quickly scale up or down based on market tendencies or shifts.

Understanding the Risks of Hiring Part-Time or Temporary Workers

While hiring part-time and temporary workers can help businesses stay agile and responsive to market demands or fill vacancies created by recent resignations, many businesses hire these types of employees without a full understanding of associated regulations. And it can get even trickier: many full-time cannabis industry workers in the cultivation space aren’t considered “employees” at all—they’re defined by the federal government as “agricultural workers.”

It’s essential that businesses classify part-time workers and independent contractors correctly. Attempting to claim a worker is part-time when they’re really a full-time employee (a practice known as “misclassification”) can save a business tax dollars in the short-term but lead to sanctions and hefty penalties down the line. For example, if a worker is misclassified and the Department of Industrial Relations finds out, they can sue the former employer for unpaid wages.

Potential fallout from noncompliance with classification or wage and hour issues includes massive fines, potential litigation and more. Federal agencies are extremely sensitive to cannabis business regulatory violations, it’s vital to adhere to proper staffing regulations and compliance. The wrong kind of attention can tank your business’s reputation and halt your operations altogether. I’ve personally worked with numerous cannabis businesses in their hiring and payroll initiatives, and I’ll say this: It may seem like a headache to cross all the “Ts” and dot all the “Is” in the beginning, but it will make a massive difference down the line.

Understanding the Regulations for Hiring Part-Time or Temporary Workers 

All employers must adhere to the regulations set forth by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates that part-time employees must be treated the same as full-time employees. That means they must be paid minimum wage, be paid overtime should they exceed their determined hours, have the opportunity to take job-protected unpaid leave, and so on. I really want to stress how essential it is that employers classify their workers appropriately.

It’s also worth noting that many states have specific regulatory structures for employment, both full- and part-time.

In the heavily regulated cannabis industry, employers must exercise strict due diligence to meet all OSHA standards. Additionally, they must identify all occupational hazards and account for employees’ overtime and double time. Grow operations must also adhere to the Field Sanitation Provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which includes providing toilets, drinking water, hand sanitation facilities and hygiene information.

Avoiding Compliance Problems with Planning and Diligence 

There’s a lot more to hiring workers than businesses realize, especially in cannabis. Most companies don’t intend to be noncompliant with regulations—they simply don’t know the regulations, or they’re overwhelmed by hiring and growing so quickly. To make sure you’re compliant, you might consider building out your HR team, educating yourself as the business leader and reaching out to staffing and HR professionals in the space who can answer your questions. In this rapidly growing industry, which seems to shift and change every day, planting your feet firmly on solid regulatory ground will serve to benefit you in the event of federal legalization, massive business growth or initiatives you may want to undertake in the future.

Best Practices for Workforce Reduction

By Conor Dale
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Due to anticipated contractions in the industry and concerns over a potential nationwide recession, cannabis industry employers may be planning on implementing large scale reduction in force (RIF) layoffs or employee furloughs to reduce payroll. While RIFs can provide business-saving cost reductions, they can subject an employer to substantial potential legal liability, including but not limited to class action lawsuits and enforcement actions from state and federal agencies. Understanding and addressing potential legal pitfalls before implementing an RIF can help in materially limiting an employer’s potential legal exposure.

Employers should first consider potential cost saving alternatives to implementing mass employee layoffs. Such steps can include reducing the salaries and/or work hours for current employees, temporarily freezing company operations for limited periods, or placing non-critical positions in a limited paid leave of absence at reduced wages. While each of these steps bear their own risks, they may assist in avoiding mass employee layoffs.

Next, federal law and the laws of certain states require employers to provide written notice to employees and local governments at least 60 days before implementing mass layoffs. For example, under the federal Work Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, an employer must generally provide a written notice to employees regarding an impending reduction in force when it: (1) permanently or temporarily shuts down a worksite which results in an employment loss of 50 or more employees; (2) lays off between 50 to 499 workers at a single worksite when such layoffs constitute at least 33% of the employer’s workforce; (3) lays off at least 500 employees within a 30 day period; (4) implements a wide scale temporary layoff of more than 6 months; or (5) reduces the work hours of 50 or more employees by at least 50% during each month of any six month period. Please note that the WARN Act aggregates layoffs over 90 days; thus, an employer conducting a series of smaller layoffs may still need to provide employees with a WARN notice. An employer who fails to provide a required notice could owe each impacted employee up to 60 days’ back pay, which includes but is not limited to the cost of potential employment benefits.

An employer should also take steps to limit potential discrimination claims based on an RIF. It is illegal for an employer to select an employee for layoff because of their protected characteristics, including but not limited to race, religion, gender or age. The primary defense to such a discrimination lawsuit is to prove the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the layoff decision. As a result, employers are strongly encouraged to create a formal RIF plan which documents the legitimate reasons for layoff decisions. The RIF plan should expressly articulate the cost-saving grounds for the RIF and the goals to be achieved by its implementation; these grounds and goals should be the sole reason for any subsequent layoff decision.

Employers are strongly encouraged to consult with legal counsel before implementing an RIFFor example, an employer should identify all necessary positions and employee skills needed for a company’s current and future business operations in order to identify non-essential positions that may be subject to position eliminations or layoffs. Similarly, employers should create standards to select employees for a RIF when multiple employees hold the same or similar jobs. These standards commonly include considering employees’ education, skills, unique knowledge, previous job performance and seniority. Most importantly, an employer should make actual layoff decisions that are consistent with its articulated RIF plans; under both state and federal law, a termination decision that is inconsistent with or contradictory to the articulated reasons for a layoff decision may provide an employee with considerable evidence that that his or her termination was at least partly motivated by their protected characteristics.

Even when making and implementing a reduction in force plan based solely on legitimate business reasons, employers must be aware of the adverse impact those decisions have on certain groups of employees. It is illegal for an employer to implement policies and practices that are facially neutral but have an unintentional discriminatory effect on protected groups of employees if those policies and practices are not job related or required by business necessity. Before implementing an RIF, employers are strongly encouraged to perform a statistical analysis of the protected characteristics of individuals selected for layoffs to determine whether they are being selected for layoffs at a significantly higher rate than other employees. If an employer does discover that certain groups are being selected for layoffs at a disproportionate rate, an employer should review its layoff decisions to confirm that these decisions are in fact required by business necessity.

Finally, employers will commonly provide severance packages to laid off employees to assist in their transition to other employment. A key factor in these packages is an employee providing an employer with a full release of potential legal claims in exchange for a severance payment. Employers are strongly encouraged to ensure that they obtain full and complete legal releases in any severance agreements they provide. For example, under California law, an employee can only provide a full and complete release of legal claims when a separation agreement specifically cites and waives a specific provision of California’s civil code. Additionally, an employer cannot obtain a legal release of federal age discrimination claims when it offers a separation package to multiple employees over 40 during an RIF program unless it provides specific information regarding the job positions and ages of employees who were and were not selected for layoffs.

While a reduction in force layoff program may help ensure a business’ survival, employers are strongly encouraged to consult with legal counsel before implementing an RIF to detect and avoid potential future legal claims.

5 Compliance Reporting and Notification Requirements That You May Not Know About

By Anne Conn
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New cannabis businesses must demonstrate proof of compliance to myriad laws and regulations as part of the initial license application process. And once a license is issued, it is easy to prioritize day-to-day business operations over ongoing compliance reporting requirements especially when sales are booming and compliance requirements are multi-layered, vague or obscured in non-cannabis specific programs and regulations.

But seemingly benign neglect of some minor reporting requirements can have major consequences to new and established businesses alike.

This article explores five compliance reporting requirements that cannabis businesses may not know about, and suggests ways to maintain a strong compliance posture across all regulatory agencies.

Pesticide Reporting

All licensed growers are required to prove compliance to state pesticide usage regulations. However, expectations on how and when to provide that proof of compliance vary greatly from state to state.  Furthermore, the responsibility of education and enforcement for pesticide usage in the cannabis industry often falls to non-cannabis specific agencies such as state departments of agriculture or environmental compliance.

For example in California, cultivators must report detailed monthly pesticide use reports via the State’s Agriculture Weights/Measures Division reporting portal, while Washington State regulators simply expect cultivators to keep records locally on site and provide them when requested.

With so many places to look, the best place to start your pesticide reporting requirement search is with your local agriculture department. They should be able to answer your questions and provide you with a list of resources to help you better understand how to comply with state pesticide usage and reporting regulations.

Hazardous Materials Reporting

Like pesticide use and reporting, hazardous waste handling and reporting requirements are complex and vary state to state. In fact, there may even be nuanced variations in handling requirements at the county level. The best approach to ensure compliance with a complicated set of regulations is to start by consulting your local county fire department. They will have the most specific set of rules for hazardous materials handling and reporting and can help you develop a site-specific compliance plan.

Two OSHA reporting requirements

Depending on how your cannabis business is classified, you may be required to keep injury and illness incident records and provide reports to the Occupational Health and Safety Organization (OSHA) for specific time periods.

Contact your business insurance provider’s loss prevention representative for more information about how your business is classified, which specific OSHA reporting requirements apply to you, and how to stay in compliance with applicable OSHA requirements.

Click here to learn more about how OSHA organizes reporting requirements by business type.

A note of caution here: OSHA non-compliance penalties can be steep and “I didn’t know I was supposed to do that” is not an acceptable defense when it comes to explaining any OSHA violations.

Labor Law Notification Requirements

Federal labor law requires that you notify employees of their rights. At a minimum, you post information regarding wages and hours, child labor, unemployment benefits, safety and health/workers’ compensation and discrimination in a conspicuous place where they are easily visible to all employees. Some states requires additional information be posted in a similar manner, so it’s important to be sure that those notices are posted along with the federal requirements.

This is a simple, yet easily overlooked, requirement for all businesses, regardless of industry. Ask your insurance provider for a copy of the notice to print and post right away (if you have not already) for a quick compliance win!

These five reporting and notification requirements may seem tedious, overly complicated and burdensome in the face of day-to-day business operations, but compliance to these requirements not only protects your business and employees, it also enhances the overall reputation of the industry. The good news is that regulatory agencies welcome a proactive approach and are happy to work with cannabis businesses to provide guidance and information for developing compliance plans.

Ellice Ogle headshot

Concentrate On a Food Safety Culture In Your Workplace

By Ellice Ogle
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Ellice Ogle headshot

In A Culture of Food Safety: A Position Paper (2018)the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) defines food safety culture as the “shared values, beliefs, and norms that affect mind-set and behavior toward food safety in, across, and throughout an organization.” In other words, food safety culture in your workplace is the “this is how we do things around here.”

A food safety culture needs to be relentlessly communicated – everyone needs to know it is his or her job, not just a dusty slogan on the wall or a whisper down the halls.Building a strong food safety culture is particularly relevant to the cannabis workplace because of the unique history of the workers and the unique needs of the consumers. The cannabis industry is special in that it was an industry before it became regulated. As such, there are many workers in the industry who have a deep passion for cannabis products, but with experience rooted in working within only a few official standards. Thus, the behavior and mind-set of workers in the cannabis industry must adjust to new regulations. However, even currently, standards are ever changing and vary from state to state; this causes further confusion and inconsistency for you and your workers. On top of that, now that cannabis is legalized in certain pockets, cannabis reaches a larger, wider audience. This population includes consumers most vulnerable to foodborne illness such as people with immunocompromised systems, the elderly, the pregnant or the young. These consumers in particular need and deserve access to safe cannabis products every experience. Therefore, it is that much more important to develop a strong food safety culture in the workplace to promote safe, quality cannabis large-scale production for the larger, wider audience.

To achieve a food safety culture, GFSI emphasizes the vision and mission of the business, the role of the leaders in the organization, and the continuity of communication and training. GFSI also emphasizes that these components are interrelated and all are needed to strengthen a food safety culture. Food safety culture components can be simplified into: 1) things you believe, 2) things you say, and 3) things you do.“this is how we do things around here.”

Things You Believe

Food safety culture starts from the top, with the executive team and senior managers. It is this group that dictates the vision and mission of the business and decides to include food safety and quality as a part of this guiding star. Moreover, it is this group that commits to the support for food safety by investing the time, money and resources. The message then has to spread from the executive team and senior managers to an interdepartmental team within the workplace. That way, the values of food safety can be further shared to front-line workers during onboarding and/or continuous training. To restart a food safety culture, a town hall can be a useful tool to discuss priorities in the workplace. Overall, it is important to have every worker believe in producing safe food and that every worker is a part of and has ownership of contributing to the food safety culture at your workplace (GFSI, 2018).

Things You Say

A food safety culture needs to be relentlessly communicated – everyone needs to know it is his or her job, not just a dusty slogan on the wall or a whisper down the halls. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a saying that “if it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.” Thus, the guidelines for a food safety culture need to be embedded in the policies, programs and procedures; and these guidelines need to be a part of training from day one and supplemented with periodic reminders. For effectiveness, make the communication engaging, relevant and simple – use your workers to pose for posters, use digital tools such as memes. In his presentation at the 2015 Food Safety Consortium, Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety at Walmart, says “How many of you created training videos that you show the desired behavior once? You should probably show the behavior more than once and by a few different employees so that when they see it, they see multiple people in the video doing it and that’s the social norm.” By sending a consistent message, a food safety culture can flourish in your workplace.A food safety culture does not happen once; a food safety culture is a long-term commitment with continuous improvement.

Things You Do

A food safety culture does not happen once; a food safety culture is a long-term commitment with continuous improvement. Periodic evaluation of food safety metrics and alignment with business goals contribute to maintaining a food safety culture – it is useful to learn from successes as well as mistakes. In the same presentation mentioned above, Yiannas discusses “Learning from the wrong way [mistakes] lessens the likelihood that we will become complacent” where he defines complacency as “a feeling of quiet security, often while unaware of some potential danger or defect that lurks ahead.” Without the constant commitment, businesses can falter in their food safety and cause costly mistakes – whether that be recalls or illnesses or worse. By not becoming complacent and emphasizing constant accountability, a food safety culture can thrive at your workplace and make your workplace thrive.

With the regulated cannabis industry still in its infancy, the time is now for every cannabis workplace to instill a food safety culture. Before being mandated, the cannabis industry can rally for food safety because it is the right thing to do. With participation from each workplace, the industry as a whole can be united in producing safe product and be better positioned to change stigmas.