The Cannabis Industry’s New Workplace Threat: Occupational Asthma

Linda Rider

Occupational Asthma

States legalizing medical and recreational marijuana have created a booming industry for which mass production is gradually becoming the norm. As with any industry, companies in the cannabis space need to pay attention to basic health and safety protocols. With that in mind, the industry’s latest workplace threat has recently been brought to light. That threat is occupational asthma.

Occupational asthma his newly acquired asthma believed to be the result of one’s working environment. It was likely the cause of death for a 27-year-old Massachusetts woman who fell sick on the job, while working for a cannabis processing company, and eventually died. Her death sparked a federal investigation that has uncovered a pattern of occupational asthma symptoms among certain types of workers in the cannabis industry.

 Working Made Her Sick

The Massachusetts woman first began working at the facility in 2021. Just a couple of months into the job, she developed breathing problems which included wheezing. She also developed shortness of breath along with a persistent cough and a runny nose. Her employer moved her to another department and hopes of helping her feel better. It did not work.

When her cough got worse, the woman began wearing a mask along with long sleeves and gloves. Yet that didn’t help either. She was taken to the emergency room in October of that year after complaining of trouble breathing. To make a long story short, she was prescribed a steroid inhaler for asthma. But a couple of months later, she had a serious attack and died.

Dust and Bacteria in the Air

The state Department of Public Health and OSHA launched investigations into her death.  Although officials found marijuana dust and endotoxin in the air at the plant, the levels of both were within allowable limits. Yet investigators concluded the levels were still high enough to trigger allergic reactions and occupational asthma.

In addition, no fewer than 10 current and former plant workers reported to investigators that they had also experienced symptoms of occupational asthma. Moreover, a study in Washington found that nearly half of the workers in one particular processing plant manifested occupational asthma symptoms. Some of them also reported allergy symptoms.

New Standards On the Way?

The recent death in Massachusetts, along with the research study out of Washington, clearly suggests there is something going on in marijuana processing facilities. Commonsense seems to dictate that new regulations are on the way. It is hard to imagine OSHA or state officials allowing things to continue as is.

It should be noted that the occupational asthma concern is limited only to processing facilities right now. It’s not an issue for growers or dispensaries. Perhaps there may be concern for growers later on, but dispensaries are not environments conducive to marijuana dust and endotoxin.

A company like Salt Lake City-based Beehive Farmacy deals with only small amounts of plant material. Even so, the plant material comes to them already packaged. The rest of the products they sell are in forms that do not produce dust or endotoxin. Medical cannabis pharmacy workers just don’t handle products that aren’t already packaged.

Expect More Investigations

If I were a betting man, I would say that we should expect more investigations into the relationship between marijuana processing and occupational asthma. We have seen similar situations in other types of work environments in which contaminated air is a problem. Perhaps we should apply the same solutions.

Here is hoping that the powers that be figure it out sooner rather than later. The cannabis industry doesn’t need or want workers getting sick as a result of doing their jobs.

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